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After Conquest

After Conquest

by

Beyowulf Anthony Schanze

with

Randall Schanze

Copyright © 2015 by Beyowulf Schanze

“Dedicated to the memory of my grandfather.”

Shakespir Edition, ISBN: tbd

Shakespir License Statement This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each reader. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1—The Name of the Beast

Chapter 2—Helios

Chapter 3—The Man and the Basilisk

Chapter 4—The Shock of the Old

Chapter 5—The Truth About Love

Chapter 6—When a Foreign God Visits Your Cathedral

Chapter 7—Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Atomic Fire

Chapter 8—Do Androids Have Nightmares?

Chapter 9—The Grass is Always Greener with Good Lighting

Chapter 10—Larger Than Life

Chapter 11—Caged Lightning

Chapter 12—Around the Solar System in Too Many Days

Chapter 13—The Deer, The Devil, And the Devil’s Grandson

Chapter 14—Art Appreciation

Chapter 15—Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Lunar Dust

Chapter 16—The Politics of Life and Death

Chapter 17—Chat History

Chapter 18—Don’t Mess With a Genie’s Lamp

Chapter 19—The Truth About War

Chapter 20—Home Again, Home Again

Chapter 21—It Was Dark When We Got Home

Chapter 22—The End of an Era

Afterword

[] Introduction

Hello, my name is Beyowulf. I am fifteen years old.

Yeah, that really is my name, complete with the misspelled “Y” and everything. That was deliberate. My parents are artsy, and their reasoning kinda made sense, but they tend to jump into things without considering the long-term consequences. The point, though, is that they’re creative people and they’ve always taught me to be, too.

This book arose from the year and a half I spent in an Accelerated Christian Education school in 2013/2014. “ACE” or “The School of Tomorrow,” as it sometimes calls itself. The system has a lot of problems which you can look up for yourself, but for me the devastating part was something I revealed to my dad in a walk around the neighborhood one day, when he said, “Hey, let’s write a song together, and you can sing it!” I got quiet.

DAD: “What’s wrong?”

ME: [Sullen] “I don’t know.”

DAD: “Rephrasing: you went tense when I said ‘lets do a song.’ What made you tense about that?”

Kid: “I’m afraid to be creative, ok?”

DAD: “Why? You’re so smart and inventive and facile.”

ME: [Tense and sullen] “I don’t know.”

DAD: “We’ll try it again: At what point did you stop liking being creative?”

ME: “It was ACE.”

DAD: [Flustered] “Why? How? How is that possible?”

ME: “It’s true.”

DAD: “Of course it is. We’re talking about feelings. If you feel something, it’s real to you. I believe you. You just loved to create, and now… I’m just shocked.”

ME: “There were a lot of rules, and if you deviate from them you’re going to hell.”

DAD: “Did they actually tell you that?”

ME: “No. It just seemed like that from the PACEs.” [This is what ACE calls its workbooks.]

DAD: “And that made you feel frightened of your own creativity?”

ME: “Yeah.”

DAD: [Long pause]

ME: “Are you ok, dad?”

DAD: “Dammit. Sorry to curse, but dammit, dammit.”

ME: “I’m sorry.”

DAD: “It’s not your fault. I knew the school was for suck, educationally. Well, that’s not true. I didn’t know how sub par it was, but I figured it was below average. I just wanted you to get some socialization, be around kids your own age, have some damn friends other than just your family, and, you know, get used to being around other people. I just wanted you to have…”

ME: “I know.”

DAD: “I never in a million years figured they could take that away from a person.”

ME: “I feel it’ll get better. It will come back. Distance.”

DAD: “Still… dammit to hell.”

ME: “You didn’t know. It’s ok.”

DAD: [Long pause] “Ok, so let’s start slow. Let’s just go back to the house and start playing with some little musical bits and stick things together and see if they sound good. Doesn’t have to be a song. Doesn’t have to evolve into a song. Just playing.”

ME: [Says nothing]

DAD: “Or we could just sing along with the radio? No pressure, work our way up from there?”

ME: [Nods]

From there we started building up my confidence and creativity again. I was always coming up with aliens and monsters and stuff, and eventually I decided to cherry-pick the best ideas and compile them into what I call the “After Conquest” universe. This will hopefully be the first of several books in this series, as I’m having a lot of fun writing it, and hopefully you’re having fun reading it.

The important thing, though, and the reason I’m telling you this, is so that you can know that people cannot take your spark away from you. They can hide it, they can beat it down, they can make you doubt it exists, but you can find it again if you work hard enough. And then every creative thing you do is a victory for you and a defeat for them.

And you, too, can write a really good book at age 15. Or 10. Or 40. Or whenever.

Sincerely,

Beyowulf

[] [Chapter One
**]The Name of the Beast

Once upon a time there was a word. This word was the same in the dozen or so known languages spoken across the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. It was also the same in two or three dozen other tongues that had once been spoken between the stars, but had since faded away.

Many of these species did not communicate in the same way, some used mouths, some used telepathy, some used electrical currents, some used bioluminescence, but the root concept of this word was the same in all these languages, both living and dead. The concept was “Fear Incarnate.”

When uttered in audio form, this word always sounded exactly the same, be it in a whisper or a thousand-decibel boom. It was the most frightening word known to any species on a billion worlds in a hundred thousand light years in every direction.

The word sounded like this:

“Man.”

[] [Chapter Two
**]Helios

Once upon a time there was a country called “The United States of America.” This country had once been dedicated to exploring space, but their interest in such things had waned over time. They hadn’t even had a space program at all in my lifetime. I was fifteen years old. That seems like a long time to do without rockets. The government said they’d get back to space in twenty years, but they’d started saying that a couple decades ago, and were still saying it now. No one much believed it.

My name, by the way, is Ishmael Stone. Yeah, I know. It’s a terrible name.

Since America couldn’t be bothered to do cool stuff in space anymore, other countries had taken up the slack. For instance, at this particular moment the Russian Space Agency was running a space mission out of French facilities in South America. Most of the staff were Americans, however, hired away from colleges. America may not build space ships or cars anymore, but we still have the brightest scientists.

My dad was probably the brightest scientist there was. His name was Ahab Stone. That’s an even worse name than mine. My family has some kind of weird obsession with Moby Dick, and every male child has to be named after a character from the book. You think I got it bad? Imagine my brother Starbuck, who continually claims his name came from a female character in a crappy science fiction show a generation or two back. Why? Because the lie gets him beat up less often than the truth. Dad wanted to name my sister “Queequeg,” but mom put her foot down on that one. Way to go, mom, if only you could have done that for me.

“Helios” was the first probe to the sun. Its mission was to obtain solar matter and return it to earth, and to obtain as many readings from the sun as possible. It launched a year ago, and was making its final approach. It would skim the sun’s atmosphere—or corona as it’s more officially called—and then skip off into space. Two years from now, it would return to earth with an actual gallon or so of whatever it is that makes up the sun, and all kinds of information.

This would be useful for… well, no one really knew. Sometimes you just do stuff in hopes that it’ll pay off down the line. If it doesn’t, well, that’s two hundred million dollars down the drain, but you still get bragging rights for doing something cool.

My dad—and you just know everyone called him “Captain Ahab”—was the head scientist on the mission. He had first pitched the idea to the Russians, and he’d been in charge since day one. I was up in the observation gallery watching the control room, which sounds exciting, but was basically just a bunch of people in a room pushing buttons. There wasn’t even much of that, as most of this stage was automated.

Suddenly, though, a red light flashed!

With my knowledge of red lights, I quickly figured out that something bad had happened. The reporters in the observation lounge were a bit slower on the uptake. I glanced at my friends Gabrielle Tucker and Robert Nelson, and both of them were wearing the same “Uh-oh” expression. While the reporters were checking their makeup and focusing their cameras, we were listening to the intercom chatter from below. I couldn’t make out much, but I’d heard enough simulations of how this part of the mission was supposed to go, that I could spot things that were not ordinarily mentioned. For instance, “Falling into the sun” was not normally part of the mission script at this point. Gabrielle picked up a intercom phone, and I saw her dad pick up a handset at his console below. He quickly said something I couldn’t make out, and hung up. She looked panicked and hung up her phone, too.

“Lock the doors,” my dad said below.

The biggest problem with Helios was how to get an object that close to the sun without it melting. The rest of the mission was pretty simple compared to that. Technical details are too boring to go into, but it was essentially a combination of supercooled refrigeration units, ablative shielding, and superconductive Buckminsterfullerine cables. “Buckycables” we called them. These were to spool out behind Helios as it skimmed the surface of the sun, and wick away all the heat, keeping the probe cool until it exited the coronosphere. The buckycables were thinner than thread, and could move tens of thousands of BTUs of heat almost instantly, and they could do double-duty as antennas for the probe.

All of this appeared to be working fine. The problem arose when one of the cables entangled the booster rocket that was supposed to stabilize Helios’ orbit. When the rocket fired, the heat was transferred off into space by a buckycable, and the whole thing simply exploded. Helios itself spiraled out of control, and rather than skimming off the surface like a stone someone throws over water, it sank like a stone when I try to throw it over water.

No one was in any physical danger. Helios was unmanned, but this was still a disaster. Captain Ahab was the hero, though. Realizing the mission was dead, he didn’t even try to salvage it. Instead, he immediately ordered everyone to gather every bit of information they could before the probe burned up.

“We’re not going to get what we wanted,” he said, “But we might get something better.” When the reporters bugged him for more information, he ignored them. When they persisted, he had them thrown out of the observation lounge. We potentially only had minutes here, and there was no time to waste. So there we were, Gabrielle, Robert, and me, and a dozen scientists, and no one else. We were the only ones in history ever to see inside the sun. We didn’t figure it would last long, but we were wrong.

Suddenly one of the men said “I’m picking up visual readings.”

“How?” my dad and I said in simultaneously.

“Buckycable antenna is still working. I have no idea how the camera is functioning at this point.”

“It’s that new Zeis-glass we got from the Germans,” someone else said.

The probe fell and fell, but did not burn. The buckycables had been designed three times longer than necessary just for safety. Eventually, however, Helios would fall deeper than they were long, and that would be that.

“Probe temperature stabilizing,” someone said.

“How is that possible?” someone else said.

“No idea,” said a third scientist, “But we’re getting some quantum fluctuations. Weird quark stuff. Never seen anything like it.”

Suddenly one of the men shouted, “Temperature is actually decreasing!

Well, my dad was all over that, as you can imagine because the last of the cables had sunk beneath the surface of the sun a good ten minutes before. Helios continued to fall for a few hours, and then it actually appeared as though it was rising, though that was impossible.

Several hours later, Helios was on the other side of the sun!

“We are way beyond the frontiers of science here,” my dad said, “There is no known way to account for what just happened. All recorders on, we need to grab as much information as we can while we’ve got it.”

Up in the lounge we could see the camera feed, and stars. The picture quality was not good, like on one of those old TVs from generations ago. Lots of static, and we kept losing color, but definitely a pretty good picture when you realize it was being transmitted through the sun.

“Rotate 180 degrees,” my dad said, “I want to see what that side of the sun looks like.” On the screen, we saw the stars streak to one side, and then saw the sun. Nothing remarkable until the next time color cut in again, and we saw that it was blue.

“Can we confirm that color?” my dad asked.

One of the scientists said, “Helios’ own spectrograph confirms. This is a blue giant.”

Our astronomer, meanwhile, was furiously photographing everything in the background. He stuttered for a moment. “That looks like Andromeda.”

“How can you make a galaxy out from here?” my dad said.

“No, no not M83 the Galaxy, I mean the constellation Andromeda.”

“I don’t see it,” said Robert next to me.

“Take a look,” said the astronomer, down in the control room, pointing at various colored blobs on the big screen. “That star matches the spectrographic charts for Alpheratz perfectly. That one there is a match for Mirach, and if those are actually those stars, then Ross 248 should be right where I’m pointing.” Sure enough, there was a star there, and sure enough, it matched the info I looked up for Ross 248 on Wikipedia while he was talking.

“I still don’t see it,” my dad said.

Gabrielle whispered “That’s because it’s inverted.”

The astronomer quickly repeated that, though of course he hadn’t heard her: “We’re seeing it from the far side.”

“What is that, about a hundred light years away?” My dad asked.

“More than,” said the astronomer. “We’d have to be considerably further away to actually make it out.”

I was flabbergasted. Not only had the mission gone horribly wrong, but somehow Helios had come out of a different star, ridiculously far away, and was still functioning. I was half sure I was dreaming, and expected to wake up to go to the bathroom or something. Definitely I had to go to the bathroom. I realized that I’d been staring at the screen for about twelve hours without a break. I wasn’t sure if the bathroom urge was due to that, or to fear. This was actually pretty scary if you’re a scientist’s kid living in a foreign country, getting paid by people from yet another foreign country. All of this had the potential to have my dad serving up burgers and fries for the rest of his life.

I ran to the can.

Robert pounded on the door. “Get back here now,” he said.

“Kinda busy,” I said.

“This is more important,” he said. Well, what can you do? I was as quick as I could be, but there are obvious limitations. When I came out, he was already gone, so I went back to the lounge.

On the big screen there was a ship. I assumed, anyway. It looked like no ship I’d ever seen, nor imagined. It drew closer to Helios.

Helios, by the way, had no means of changing from the course it was already on. It could turn, but that was about it, and it was at least sixteen light minutes away from us, meaning what we were seeing happened a quarter hour ago, and if we had sent instructions right this minute, they wouldn’t get to the probe for quite some time. Dad was technically in control, but given the half hour lag between commands and response, it was only technical. No one was really in control.

A door or iris or hatch or stoma or whatever opened in the ship, and it swallowed up Helios, which was still transmitting somehow. Later on we figured it was because the buckycable antennas were still probably hanging out the door. Or stoma. Or whatever.

Helios was now in a room which looked refreshingly like a room, as opposed to the outside which looked a bit like a stomach turned inside out.

A deer entered the room. At least at first glance he looked like a deer. The more I looked the creepier he got. His legs were all pointed out at right angles to each other, like table legs, with feet pointing out from the center. His horns were straight up. Also, he had arms. They’d been folded contemplatively behind his back when he came in, so I didn’t notice them at first, but then he moved them forward and stroked his—I assume it was a his because of the horns—chin contemplatively. The arms looked mechanical.

One of them reached out towards Helios, and touched it, and we instantly lost the connection.

“What. The. Frack. Just. Happened?” my dad said. (He’d picked this word up from watching the TV show my brother claimed his name had come from)

So that was the most remarkable thing to have ever happened in human history up to that point: We traveled across the galaxy faster than light, found proof of intelligent alien life, discovered like a dozen new laws of physics, and basically changed the way we look at the universe forever. And I was there for it.

I quickly turned to one of my friends, and said, “I think I know my purpose in life now.”

[] [Chapter Three
**]The Man and the Basilisk

Once upon a time there was a spacecraft called “Helios.” It had been intended to scoop up a cup of the sun and bring it back to earth for study, but things had gone horribly wrong. Helios fell into the sun. Then things went horribly right, and it somehow fell through the sun and came out the other side. It was quickly captured and deactivated or perhaps destroyed by a deer-like creature which—in a fit of screaming artistic originality—we now called “The Deer.” Before this happened, though, we were able to determine that somehow Helios had actually traveled faster than light and emerged from another star completely unrelated to our own sun. We figured it was 200 light years away when the deer got it, but that was just a best guess.

I know this because I happened to be there when all this went down. My name is Ishmael Stone, and my dad was the head of the Helios project at the time.

Since then we’d had no contact from beyond the stars, but I had made it my life’s goal to contact The Deer. In the decade since the Helios incident, I’d graduated college and the Chinese Astronaut Academy. I had applied to the Russian one, but they were simply too exclusive to get into. India was all full up. China has always been very welcoming of outside talent, however, and since America no longer had a space program of any sort, that was my only option.

During all this time, no one had managed to replicate our successful failure. No one had really put much effort into it, if we’re honest. Space exploration is prestigious, and also very expensive. This is why people have been to the moon, but not Mars, despite seventy or eighty years in space. America occasionally says they’ll be there in twenty years, but they’ve been saying that for at least fifty years, so mostly everyone just laughs and ignores it. I swear the American Science Director was chuckling the last time I saw him say it at a press conference.

A few probes had been sent to the sun, but all of them had burned up. This wasn’t surprising. The sun is hot. Helios survived its passage due to good luck, and also a unique heat projection system that worked better than expected. Honestly, it was a fluke. It shouldn’t have worked. Most people on earth didn’t believe it had worked. They thought it was “The New NASA Moon Hoax” or “Space Bigfoot” or whatever it is that stupid people delude themselves with in between football games.

Russia, however, took it seriously. It was their probe, and their discovery, even if the staff behind it were mostly Americans like my dad. They had quietly studied their own data, as well as even more quietly stealing and studying the data of other countries, and concluded that there was a “Zvezda Trubka” inside the star. In English, this meant “Star Tube.” They had wanted to call it a “Stargate,” but got sued by MGM. In actual fact, most of the science folks referred to it as “The place where space time goes all goofy,” or, in somewhat more dignified Russian, “Tupov Prostranstvo.” In my time in school in China, I was taught to call it “Gao fei de kongjian:” “Goofy space.”

So here I was, ten years later, an American trained by the Chinese on a Russian space ship launched from French territory, aimed towards the sun, about to go all goofy. I momentarily wondered if I could actually call it a spaceship as it was heading toward the sun—two suns, technically—but decided this was a debate for another day. I had more pressing matters.

“All systems green from our end, you are ready for final burn, Pequod,” said Robert Nelson, my best friend back on earth. He and Gabby had been there that day with me when the stars opened up. My family, too, of course. In a way, they were here with me again.

In a more accurate way, though, they were no where near me, and it was scaring the crap out of me. I was 93 million miles away. For a year now I had lived in a space ship named after a whaling ship that never learned how to do anything but sink. It was the size of a walk-in closet, and I was more than a little stir crazy. Added to which I was about to dive knowingly into the sun, and, well, you get the picture.

“God speed, son,” my dad said. Eight minutes ago. I was really far from earth. It took the fastest thing there is—light—all that time to get from French Guiana to me, and by the time my reply got to him, I’d already be headed through the sun in a baptism of fire. Funny how moments like this conjure up religious metaphors. I said “A-ok” or “Roger” or something stupid like that, hit the button, and down (or possibly up) I went.

What can I tell you? It got bright. I pulled the shades. It got brighter still. It got hot, but the Pequod was basically a scaled-up version of Helios. It had four redundant radio antennas added. That meant I had a couple thousand or so miles of buckycable trailing me. One molecule thick, able to superconduct heat energy so fast you’ll freeze to death if you touched it with a bare hand, and it made a good radio antenna too. So I fell, and I fell, and I fell, and then strange things happened that I can’t quite set straight in my mind. I forgot where I was and what I was doing, I saw sounds, I heard smells. I felt colors. Goofy space indeed. My brain was melting, or perhaps cooling back into form. Or maybe doing both at once. There’s a disease among my kind called “synesthesia” where sensory inputs get all cross-wired. I assume it was something like that. If you’re curious, I assume it happened because I was in two or more places at once.

Russia’s theory was that there was a tesseract in the middle of our sun. By going through it at the right angle, speed, and time, you’d come out another tesseract in another star. Why this should be, no one understood, but a decade of readings and study presented it as the only workable theory. The whole mission was to test it, and since we were going to all the expense, why not stick a person in the can? People are infinitely better for public relations than remote controlled things.

Doubt me? What has America got to show for half a century of little R/C cars littering the Martian landscape?

I’m waiting?

Nothing?

My point exactly.

And then I was falling, but it felt different. Falling up, not down. That doesn’t make any sense, even to me, but cut me some slack here. I could taste my chair just by putting my hand on it, I was terrified, and all my mental energy went into bowel control. (Which is an actual class at the Chinese Astronaut Academy, by the way).

And then I was out. I was orbiting a star gosh only knows how far from my own. I quickly called home.

“Pequod to Kourou Base, Pequod to Kourou base, this is Ishmael Stone. I am through the star. Beginning to take readings.”

I hit a button and several astronomical satellites popped out of my ship. I quickly noticed something was wrong as soon as I turned my head. The star was red. The one Helios had seen was blue. I had no idea where I was, and I will confess I pretty much forgot everything I’d learned in my bowel control class at that point.

How was I going to get home?

I’d known this could be a one way journey, but if it was a one way journey, I didn’t expect to be alive for it. I never anticipated being stranded. That’s an entirely different type of scare. I related this information to Korou Base back in French Guyana, but it would be at least half an hour or more before they even got word I’d survived. Not much they could do to help.

I checked my astronomical satellites. They were programmed to take pictures of every observable star, and transmit the info back through goofy space to earth, where the info would be compared to starcharts, and they’d be able to figure out where I was. Hopefully. I didn’t see how that would help me to get home, but rather than dwell on it, I decided to change my pants.

As a result, I didn’t see the space ship pull up until it swallowed the Pequod whole.

Hm. Perhaps my family obsession with Moby Dick is more apt than I’d assumed. Or perhaps they got it wrong, now that I think about it. At this moment, I’m feeling a lot more like Jonah, or perhaps Pinocchio than my namesake. My namesake survives the story, after all. I’m pretty sure Pinocchio dies, at least for a little bit. I can’t remember how Jonah came out—never terribly religious, don’t‘cha’no—but honestly: dude got eaten by a whale. How well could that possibly have worked out for him?

And then I was in a room, and I saw you for the first time, and, again, I needed a wardrobe change.

Alas, none was available.

From my perspective, you look like a snake with bird wings. You are huge to me. Humans are not wired to judge serpentine shapes accurately, but I can tell you are more than a thousand feet long. Your face terrifies me, with your unblinking eyes the size of school buses, and your flicking, tongue that tears past my head with deafening sound. Your skin glints like diamonds, and I can hear the breath in your nostrils the size of smokestacks. The sound of your wings is deafening, like more than a hundred jet fighters, and yet you are only barely moving. The thing that really terrifies me is this, though: there is no heat coming off your body. Instead, you radiate only cold.

I have never been more frightened in my life, and given the whole “insane dive into a star,” thing, that’s saying something.

So I didn’t meet the Deer. I did meet you, however. What shall I call you?

Well, on my own world there were some people called “Aztecs” who worshiped a god they called “Quetzalcoatl.” Basically, it looked like you, though not as massive, not by a fraction. Despite being a dead ringer for you, their thing was just a monster. You, you, whatever you are, you are of a size that Zeus would have avoided tackling. Thor would have taken a glance, and then run away. Actually, I’m surprised my heart hasn’t given out just from being trapped in the same room with you.

You want to know about me. You started an extended “Me Tarzan/You Jane” session which has lasted several hours. Perhaps several days? I feel on the edge of insanity and can not really judge time. I remember looking for the Deer, and yet I am so overwhelmed I feel as though I have always been here, in this room, in this nightmare, with you.

Eventually you learned enough to communicate with me. You asked me in corrupted English who I was, and I have told you. How much of it you understood, I don’t know. You asked me my story of how I got here, and I have just now wrapped that one up. Next you asked me what my species is.

I said, “Man.”

I did not expect your reaction. I do not know what I expected—perhaps a cold stare from a super-demon that can not blink—or perhaps just more questions. I certainly did not expect fear, though.

You recoiled—literally, as you’re a snake—you beat your wings, you screamed some nightmare that I could not hear for the deafening of your wings. You writhed and threw yourself against the wall of the enormous room opposite me to get out. Whomever was on the other side of that wall was scared, too, and clearly in no rush to come in. I heard muffled shrieks. You were having a panic attack. A bad one. So was everyone else on your ship, apparently.

Then, in blind, self-preservational rage, you lunged out at me and killed me.

I remember my last thoughts being, “I’m an ant compared to an anaconda. How can I instill such fear in you?”

And I will never know, because then you killed me.

And I will never know how it is that I remember all this, because I am obviously quite dead.

And yet somehow, both these mysteries must have a resolution, right?

It will be most interesting to find out what they are.

[] [Chapter Four
**]The Shock of the Old

Once upon a time there was a monster, and I killed it, and that should have been the end of the story.

Unfortunately it wasn’t.

I scarred myself in the process. I could not see out of my left eye. I reached up with my tongue to probe it, and found it swollen shut. How had this happened? I looked at the tiny body of the tiny monster that had scared me so much, and there was simply no way it could have hurt me. I had been panicked, perhaps I had struck myself when flailing around in terror?

It was possible. I didn’t even remember attacking it, but clearly I must have.

Doctor slithered in, opened up some tools, and prodded around my eye.

“You will keep the eye, but you will also keep a scar,” he told me, “Unless you want me to get rid of it for you?” I said nothing. I was still too nervous. I was coiling and uncoiling my body, my wings furled and unfurled. Flight or fight mode.

“Calm down,” Doctor said, “You nearly knocked your own head off. What happened?”

“I can’t tell you,” I said. “I can only tell Commander. It’s confidential.”

“Fine. Keep your secrets. I’m concerned about your temper, though. Your agitation is going up. If you continue to get more excited, you’ll lose control, and on a ship there are no clouds. I’d have to kill you for mercy’s sake,” he said.

“Or you could simply anesthetize me,” I said.

“Which basically comes to the same thing,” he said. This was true. I have heard that many species sleep, but my kind do not. If our brains shut down even for a moment, we lose everything. When we awaken, we are born with a new soul. We are as hatchlings in an adult body, having to relearn everything, having no memories of our past lives, friends, families, loved ones. No memories of the squashed monster on the deck in front of me, either. I wondered if that would be a good thing?

“Eat something,” Doctor said, still poking at my eye. “Food calms the nerves.” I hissed agreement. He pulled an electrical generator out of his Doctor’s bag, and offered it to me. I nodded, just so there’d be no confusion on his part. He attached the paddles to my long torso, and fired it up. I ate lightning until I did feel calm. By then my eye could open and close again.

“I make good static, don’t I?” Doctor said.

“You should be named ‘Cook,’” I joked. Joking was good. Joking wasn’t terror. Doctor suggested a little exercise, so I flew a dozen quick laps of the corridors of our huge ship, as fast as I could fly, then slithered a few more. It tired me out just enough that I felt in control. Doctor had me check in again, and pronounced me “Not Dangerous,” and told me to go tell Commander my secrets. He said it sarcastically.

Secrets indeed. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, so long that most people didn’t believe it had actually happened, there was a species that was fear incarnate. For longer than even my kind can remember—and our memories go back millions of years—these monsters had been conspicuously absent from the universe. They were scary stories to frighten hatchlings into behaving. “Be good or The Mans will get you.”

I myself had never believed in the things, however I had seen the ancient drawings and this creature did look a lot like them. Not enough proof. Many aliens have similar body designs, but theirs was of a kind that made our flesh crawl. My encounter with Ishmael—as the creature had called itself—had made me wonder for the first time if the legends were true. No. Actually, I now believed they were true. My encounter made me wonder just how far they went back. My reactions—terror, and murder—were reflex. I was an educated being, civilized, cultured, trained not to be xenophobic. This was not my first encounter with aliens. Why had I gone mad? If this thing was the long-banished demon from our past, then how long had it plagued us?

Long enough to affect our psyche, obviously. Long enough to affect our reflexes? Long enough to affect our evolution itself? That was terrifying. Coming face to face with a demon is one thing. Realizing the demon may have played some part in shaping your species is more terrifying still.

Scarier than that, I had to report it.

I tongued Captain’s door, and he hissed for me to come in.

“State your name,” Captain said. His mood was jovial.

“Interrogator clan skycoral of the third sun, planet jadoom, fifteenth house, reporting as ordered, sir.” I said.

“Interrogator, thank you for coming. I understand there was an incident. You had to kill the thing?” I nodded, embarrassed. “Were you able to learn its language first? Did you have any difficulty,” he asked.

“Minimal,” I laughed. “It was so tiny it barely had a speech apparatus. It only used a narrow range of frequencies, no telepathies or photochromatics. I’ve talked to rocks with a larger vocabulary. It was pathetically easy.”

“What happened to your eye?”

“I believe I struck myself,” I said.

He replied, “No matter. What did he call himself?”

“He called himself ‘Man,’” I said shakily. Commander flinched.

“Did he look like the ancient drawings?” He asked nervously.

I responded, “Close enough to be a stylized representation, yes.”

He then entered a full panic, and lashed at me. For the second time that day, I took a blow to the face, and felt my left eye slam shut. I curled into a ball in the corner and screamed for Doctor.

Doctor came slithering, and then brought several others to subdue Commander. He was the largest of us, of course, and it was hard to take him down. He kept amping up and amping up and eventually Doctor had no choice but to inject him with the dream killer. He passed out, alive but dead, an empty shell. We were all horrified at what we had to do. There is only a philosophical difference between unconsciousness and death among my species.

And now time has passed. Doctor fussed with my eye, and told me I would have two scars now, unless I wanted him to remove them. I insisted on leaving them. They suited my mood. One does not endure two horrors in one day and come away unscathed. Removing the scars would feel like a lie.

“Are you sure? They’re in the meat. They’ll still be there after you shed your skin and grow a new one.” I waved him away with my tail.

Vice-Commander took control of the ship in the crisis, and we dropped Commander’s lifeless-but-still-living corpse on the nearest sustainable world with some of our kind. Eventually he would grow a new soul. We have since returned to Leonadraon, a superjovian world home to a few hundred billion of our kind. It is our base of operations for this chunk of the galaxy.

And still the story will not end.

The monster has been preserved as best we could, though there wasn’t much left of it. We had full recordings of our encounter, and of course I was the only person to have had any direct interaction with it, and the only member of our species who spoke its language. There was no way out of this, I thought. I poked at the specimen case with my tail. It had called itself “Ishmael.” It had spoken of a world full of Fear Incarnate such as itself. It had ridden a primitive space ship it called “The Pequod.” It had called me a “Quetzalcoatl.” I sighed, resigning myself to my fate.

I was summoned before Leader Leonadraon, the most powerful—and largest—of our kind for a thousand light years in any direction. I would have been scared in any circumstance, but if he had the same reaction as Commander did… as I had… I would surely die. That did not bother me, though, or at least not much. More than that, I was frightened at what he would do with the news if it didn’t drive him insane.

I rode the shuttle down to the cloud palace, and was summoned in with much fanfare. I took a deferential pose in the air before him.

“What’s new, Interrogator of the clan skycoral of the third sun, child of the planet jadoom, esteemed brother of the fifteenth house?”

“Man has returned to the stars,” I said in a small voice.

I am told Leader’s screams could be heard a hundred miles away.

And still the story will not end….

[] [Chapter Five
**]The Truth About Love

Once upon a time there was a country called “The United States.” They were young and scrappy and smart and dared mighty things. In their heyday they went to the moon simply because they could, and it seemed like a cool thing to do. Then they got fat, and dumb, and happy and lazy and they lost their imagination. They abandoned the moon, but they continued to dip their toes in space for another generation or so. Then they retired altogether. In my day, they hadn’t bothered with space in forty years or so. It was cheaper and easier and lazier just to pay other countries to do that sort of thing for them.

Times changed, and the next thing you knew everyone’s country wanted a piece of space. The poor old US of A was desperate to remind the world that it mattered. By a ridiculous chain of events, this led to me careening towards the surface of the planet Venus in the most insane space mission ever conceived. Well, maybe second most insane. We’ll have to ask Ishmael Stone about his, assuming the Pequod ever makes it home again.

Why Venus? Glad you asked: No one had ever bothered much with Venus because the planet is a nightmare. The surface temperature is higher than the melting point of lead. The atmosphere is toxic hydrochloric acid and carbon dioxide. The air pressure at ground level is about the same as if you were a half mile down in the ocean on earth.

Venus 1—never let politicians name space ships—was slamming through the acid skies leaving a trail of gaseous lead and worse stuff. There was a sudden gust, and Lynn and I were slammed against the side of the capsule. No alarms sounded. No breaches. We were suited up just in case, but nice to know we wouldn’t die. Two layers of insulation between yourself and hell is much more reassuring than just one.

Why were we doing this again? No one in their right mind would ever go there. The problem was that everyone in their right mind had already gone—or was already going—somewhere better. America was not in its right mind.

Twenty years ago, the Russians accidentally discovered a way to travel between stars—literally—faster than light. Space was exciting again, and everyone wanted a piece of it. India quickly gobbled up the moon and was making a fortune off Helium 3. China was bound and determined to claim Mars as their own. Russia, meanwhile, was dumping truckload after truckload of unmanned interstellar probes and mapping the galaxy. Brazil was about to send people to the asteroids.

Suddenly it was a very humiliating time to be American. Hence our insane mission born of egotistical desperation.

I am an American, though I’ve spent most of my life living in the Kourou Space Launch Facility in French Guyana. My name is Gabrielle Tucker. I was there twenty years ago when the Russians discovered “Goofy Space,” as it was so poetically named. I was also there ten years ago when the Russians launched the Pequod.

Ah, Ish. My dear, lost, Ish. What became of you? Our relationship was never clear. It never is when you grow up in a small ghetto inside a foreign country. There are so few people who “get” you that you’re never sure if they’re your friend, or your boyfriend or your ally, or what. No matter now in his case. After a decade I doubt anyone would ever be seeing him again. Given how rough Venus is turning out to be, I kinda doubt anyone will ever see me again.

We hit a hundred thousand feet, and the weather cleared up a bit. I looked at the gauges. Lynn was keeping up chatter with Mary up in the Venus Orbiter (again, never let politicians name space ships). I hit a button, and our first heat shield exploded and fell away. Parachutes came out, but barely slowed us. I read off the distance to the ground, Lynn read them off in a dramatic voice—because she was the commander, see—to Mary, who was up in the orbiter, and Mary read them off to mission control on earth. Earth would get the numbers about six minutes from now because of how inconveniently freakin’ slow the speed of light is, and then they’d reply. About six minutes after that, I’d hear them and pretend to pay attention. The twelve-minute lag made the talking useless, but people get nervous if they don’t hear your voice.

“Ground is coming up fast,” I said.

“Stay on course,” Lynn said.

“Ground is coming up really fast,” I said.

Looking at the topographical maps, Lynn said, “There’s nothing there, stay on course.”

“I really think you should look out the window and not just at the map,” I said.

“Stay on course,” she said.

Yeah, nuts to that. I pulled a lever, and the rest of our entry heat shield exploded away. Huge steel balloons opened, and an actual propeller popped out of the back of our capsule. The atmosphere this close to the ground was so thick that it acted like a liquid in some ways. Venus 1 had more than a little bit in common with a mini-submarine.

Still, this was way too early and way too fast, and we were both slammed into the floor, and then into the wall once again. Still no alarms, though did I see a red flash in Lynn’s direction? No. Just spots in front of my eyes.

“Holy Hannah!” said Lynn, looking out the window. Below us was a 60,000 foot tall mountain range that was not on the maps.

“This is why I’m the driver, and you’re merely the commander,” I said. I kicked in the prop, and started to steer us away from the mountains. They were the craziest looking things I’d ever seen. They looked almost like a rib cage, except with ribs sticking out at every odd angle. We were way too high and way too fast, but there were gusts coming off the mountain, and I really am that good. I caught one, and it slowed us down enough that we could land. We found a flat spot twenty five miles away from our intended site, and put down there.

“Houston, Venus 1 has landed. Repeat: Venus 1 has landed.” The folks back home would cheer in six minutes. Up in orbit, Mary was cheering now.

You’ll recall I mentioned that the Chinese were going to Mars on their space ship Huoxing Chuanbo (which translates as “Mars Ship.” Once again, never let politicians name spacecraft.) There was no way the US could get to Mars before the Chinese. They had a head start, a manned space program, and they were just basically better than us in any way that mattered in science.

Venus had some advantages over Mars, though. It was generally closer, which meant less travel time and smaller rockets. Owing to orbital velocities, it was also a much easier target to hit than the red planet. So, with limited time and a sudden burning national passion to blow crazy money for no purpose other than to be first at something again, we started a crash development program to put actual feet on the second planet. Lynn’s feet. And mine.

“Crash development program.” I never really liked the “Crash” part of the name, which nearly came true just now.

The Venus 1 had launched a full year after, the Chinese ship, but they were still two days away from Mars orbit. So we’d won.

Lynn and I stepped into the airlock, and out on to the platform. She began her climb down the ladder. All the way out from earth, I’d asked her what her first words were going to be. She refused to tell me. Well, whatever she had intended to say, it probably wasn’t “Aiiiighgggh!” That’s all we heard. Then her suit imploded from the pressure. Evidently that red light hadn’t just been spots in my eyes. The first actual words on Venus were profanity as I scrambled down to help. Too late. Her suit was crushed, and her body was a compressed charcoal briquette.

Mary and Earth and I argued over what to do. With annoying twelve-minute lapses in the conversation, this was getting us nowhere, and I only had limited time. Venus 1’s insulation was already melting away. I had about a day here before I was as dead as Lynn. Ultimately Houston decided I should take her corpse back with me.

“No way I’m spending a year in a space ship with a stiff,” I said. Mary backed me up, and suggested I bury her on the surface. Again, little time and no point. I claimed to have buried her, but really I just piled up some rocks, planted the flag atop them, and took some pictures.

I was supposed to stick to as much of the mission profile as possible—geology stuff—but nuts to that. I wanted to check out the mountains. I inflated the balloons on the Venus 1 and flew about halfway there, then landed and walked. My suit was like those old-timey JIM suits they used to poke around the Titanic, but with big balloons tethered to the shoulders. I could move at a decent clip. I figured I had enough time to make it to the mountains and back, and there was just something compellingly weird about them.

Mary and Mission control both cursed me for going off mission like this. Oh well.

Six hours later, I saw them.

Have you ever seen an old television show called “Babylon 5?” Ish was obsessive about it when we were young, and I watched it mostly to be with him. There were these aliens called “Vorlons.” Their ships were actually organic. The mountain I had nearly crashed into looked a little like one of their ships turned on its side, and half-rotted away, only much, much bigger. This thing must have been more than ten miles long. The ribs really were ribs, shattered and twisted, and sticking out of meat/metal. Black smoke was belching out of randomly-placed pores, and there were intestine-like tendrils stuck in the ground and pulsing.

Now you’d think that would be the most disturbing part of the mission, but you’d be wrong. The most disturbing part was that I instantly knew its name.

“Ee-vah” I said. In orbit, Mary said the same thing simultaneously looking at my helmet camera feed. When the picture hit earth six minutes later everyone there said “Ee-vah” in unison as well. How’s that for disturbing?

So what else was there to do? I decided to cut off a hunk of it that looked to weigh about as much as Lynn had. I sealed it up in a bag so I could take it home and study it. I took readings on the pore-gas and the intestine-goo, and found that Ee-vah was actively converting the Venusian soil to this lethal atmosphere.

Why? Venus might have been a nice place before she got here. Why deliberately trash it? Why was Ee-vah all busted up like this? Why did I think of Ee-vah as a she? Turns out everyone else did, too, but no one could explain why.

Big questions, no answers, no time. I rushed back to the capsule.

Quick science lesson: The trickiest thing about a mission to Venus is how you get back up in space again when you’re done on the ground. Firstly, you’re fighting almost earth-level gravity, so you’d need a ten story rocket, right? My lander was the size of a walk-in closet. Secondly, you’ve got crazy high atmospheric pressure, which means your rocket would have to be built as strong and as heavily as a submarine. And since that would make it heavy, it would actually have to be a lot larger than any earth rocket in order to carry enough fuel to get into orbit. Thirdly, it’s insanely hot here. Rockets work by burning fuel, which creates super-heated exhaust, which then pushes the rocket upwards. Unfortunately, any rocket fuel we knew of burned cooler than the normal ground temperature here. Hence, no expanding gases and no thrust.

So how to get back up again? Glad you asked. We use a tiny thing called a “Nuclear Pulse Rocket.”

The principle behind it is similar to chucking a cherry bomb under a bucket, then standing on the bucket when the bomb goes off and throws you upwards. Now imagine that while you’re still going up, you manage to throw another cherry bomb under the bucket, and then another, setting them off faster and faster, pushing you higher and higher.

Venus 1 had a big, thick, shielded plate on the bottom, attached to some impressive shock absorbers. To get back in space and meet up with Mary on the orbiter, we were going to set off a series of atomic bombs beneath that plate—one on the ground, one at a mile, one at two miles, and so on—and ride the shock waves all the way in to orbit. I know, insane, right? And of course it had never been tried. I was nervous, but consoled myself in the knowledge that they were pretty tiny bombs. Only about a deciton.

They worked and I docked with the Orbiter and we headed back to earth. Roughly a day after leaving Venusian orbit, the Chinese landed on Mars. No one gave a crap. We had totally skunked them.

All the way back to earth, Mary and I could not shake the feeling that the hunk of Ee-vah was staring at us.

“I think I made the wrong choice,” I said. “I think I would have preferred to travel all the way back with a stiff.”

[] [Chapter Six
**]When a Foreign God Visits Your Cathedral

“Once upon a time there was God,” said the preacher. “And then we learned, and God was lessened. God made all, and was all, until the day when we said ‘I am not God,’ which made God smaller.” All of us in the service nodded at this point, which was part of the ritual. “This was our fall from grace. This was the thing we could not undo. This is the thing we can not forgive ourselves for. This is the thing we must not let happen again.” The preacher paused as we all nodded, and sang a short bleat of harmonic ascent.

“God is that which we do not know, and all that which we do not know, and mercifully we are very ignorant, so God is very big. Every new thing we learn, however, chips away at Him, and it is not hard to fear a day when we will have whittled Him down to something that can hide under a pebble or a flower, or perhaps be crushed by one of our own hooves when we are not paying attention. “

Here we bowed, and issued the ritualistic gasp of horror.

“We cannot control what the other species do, but we can prevent ourselves from continuing this sin. We may use the tools, but we may not invent them. We may see the universe, but we may not understand it. We may learn what nature does, but we must not investigate how it does it. This is our burden, and may the other species learn from our example.”

“May the other species learn from our example,” we all recited. Then we all sang, “Long live the God of the Gaps.”

The opening out of the way, the service began in earnest, but I didn’t get to hear any of it because my right antler started buzzing. Under my breath I said, “Not now.”

“Urgent. Diplomatic,” said the voice in my horn.

“Fine, I’m on my way.” I quietly trotted out of the chapel. My second in command briefed me on the situation on my way to the hangar bay. Along the way I absentmindedly played with my toy. It was simply two identical circles mounted on an axis, attached to a string. By moving my right prosthetic arm down, it would unspool to its full length, and then by jerking my prosthetic fingers, it would spool back up again. Up and down, up and down, up and down. A nervous habit. A few planets back, I’d found one that was an exact duplicate of our starship, and it had become my favorite. Lots of species use artificial gravity, or ignore it entirely. We rotate. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s low-tech enough not to make us Referees fear it. Just counter-rotating wheels. Easy.

The hangar bay was in the center, barely spinning and all but weightless. Hovering in the middle of the enormous cargo bay was a Skydragon. He was huge, but then all of them are. He was a snake. I’d guess he was one hundred and sixty six times my body length. His richly-feathered wings were perhaps half that from tip to tip. I bowed, all four knees and both fake arms to the deck. (I had grippers in my hooves, or else I would have not been able to do this without floating off)

“Greetings, Interrogator of the Clan Skycoral of the Third Sun, Child of the planet Jadoom, Esteemed Brother of the Fifteenth House. I am Captain Ak of the Referee. Our vessel is the Alocaoc. Welcome aboard.”

“I thank you for your time, Captain Ak of the Alocaoc,” the Skydragon said.

“Those are two quite impressive scars you’ve got there above your eye,” I said, trying to establish neutral ground for conversation. I instantly regretted it. His tongue flicked out nervously and brushed the scars. Oh well, who can figure a snake? I thought.

“What can the Referees do for you today, my dear Interrogator?” I asked.

“I seek comparison,” he boomed. His voice was deafening, and had I not had my translator ear plugs in, he probably would have blown out my eardrums. As it was, I could feel the force of his words in my chest.

“With what?” I asked.

“Have you ever seen one of these? He asked, and his left wingclaw held out an enormous metal sphere with four long antennae that swept backwards from its equator about 90 degrees apart. It looked damaged and burned, but it reminded me vaguely of something I had seen.

“Is it missing anything?” I asked.

“Why do you ask?”

“It looks damaged,” I said.

“It had several thousand shiplengths of a primitive superconductive monofilament behind it.”

“Why do you want to know?” I asked.

“Why do you want to know why I want to know?” he countered.

“I suppose you’re correct. Curiosity is often a sin. In any event, I don’t believe I’ve seen anything like this before,” I lied. It is impossible to read a snakes face, but their body language is one huge wagging tail. Looking at that, I knew he knew I was lying.

“The Referees are the only species that has dealings with all the other species. If anyone was using something like this, you would know about it.”

“True,” I said, “but I wouldn’t be able to share information without permission from the users.”

He sighed in exasperation, or as close to sighing as a snake can. “Take a closer look,” he said, “Be sure.” I trotted over and poked at it with a hoof.

“Is this writing?” I asked, pointing at some seemingly random engravings.

“Yes. It says ‘Pequod,’ and, no, I don’t know what that means.”

“Why is this important?” I asked.

“It may not be,” he said, and now it was his turn to lie. “We think it might be ancient tech, from one of the fallen species, long before our time. It is very primitive, but our leader would like to know more.”

“I don’t understand why.”

“Nor I,” Interrogator said, undoubtedly lying again, “Perhaps he wants it for a museum. You know of his fondness for antiquities.”

“That is interesting,” I said, “For we had heard that your leader had gone insane from a bad fright and had to be put to sleep.”

“Stuff and rumors,” said the snake. He was a very bad liar. So whatever this thing was, it could terrify the strongest and oldest species in this part of the galaxy. Good to know.

“Well, in any event,” I said, “I have not seen this, nor anything like it before.”

“Are you sure?” Interrogator asked. His body was now intimidatingly rigid, with his wings folded around himself, making him seem even longer. “Perhaps in your dealings with the Me? Your arms are a Me-design, aren’t they? Perhaps the next time you communicate with them, you could ask on our behalf, just as a personal favor? We have noticed you are having a lot more dealings with the Me than with the other species of late.”

“What are you trying to say?” I said, clear annoyance in my voice. Of course I knew exactly what he was saying.

“Simply that you Referees are not taking as clear and even a stance as you claim to be.”

“Think what you will. We treat all equally,” I said with growing frustration. “Check our records, if you want, though I would appreciate it if you would take your leave once you’ve done so.”

He coiled and thrust his wings forward, then relaxed—the Skydragon equivalent of a shrug—and said, “Fine. No offense intended. I shall return to my ship and continue looking elsewhere.” He left, and I trotted to the control room where I found my second in command.

“You look calm for dealing with such a large meat eater,” he said, “You’re not even playing with your toy.”

“Do me a favor and check the garbage bays,” I said, “A while back I remember some crew complaining about some shiny head-sized balls with four whip antennas coming out of the equator. Useless trash, no value.”

“Yes, we’ve been coming across a lot of those, more and more frequently. Why?”

“Because they look exactly like the thing our serpentine guest held, only much smaller. Gather as many as you can find that haven’t already been recycled, and plot a course to the nearest Me world.”

Impartiality is born of self interest. Anything that could terrify the dragons was something that the Me would be interested in, and that would allow us to enforce our impartiality. They would be willing to trade high-tech items to us in exchange.

Better still, they wouldn’t explain to us how our new toys worked, just how to use them.

[] [Chapter Seven
**]Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Atomic Fire

Once upon a time I was floating down the hallways of the international space station in a full space suit, with a 400 year old cutlass in my hand, hacking and slashing everything that got in my way. This was because once upon an even older time, America had abandoned space. Once upon a time somewhat after that, America had briefly gotten interested in space again, and made some impressive strides. Then, once upon a time in between then and now, America had abandoned space… again. This resulted in a more recent once upon a time where I just kind of snapped, culminating in the once upon a time I’m in right now.

This probably requires some explanation, but I’m sort of busy, so give me a minute.

The ISS has grown quite a bit in the last fifty years or so, but for some dumb reason it is still run from the old section of the station. I had to make my way there, and I was out in the recreation modules section. The hacking and slashing wasn’t actually doing anything, it was just to scare people off. Mostly. I smashed open a clear plastic box in the wall that said “Do not open except in emergency” and then I punched a fist-sized red button that said “Blowout.” This sounded a piercing alarm that could be heard anywhere in the station.

Blowouts were bad news, and had never happened anywhere except from the American sections. There wasn’t actually a blowout going on at the moment, it’s just that the staff and visitors are all trained to immediately treat an alarm as a “Lifeboat Drill.” This meant everyone went back to their airtight rooms and put on their space suits until the crisis was past, or someone came by to rescue them. For my purposes, this just got all the excess bodies out of the way. I didn’t actually want to hurt anyone, but with all those rich fishbelly-white flabby tourists floating around, it might be hard to maneuver well enough to avoid hurting them.

The crowd at the zero-G pool darted away, and I could see the hallway to the old station was empty. With its twisty, turny, badly-designed hallways. It’ll take me a while to get there, so this is a good opportunity to explain.

Thirty years ago, the Russians had accidentally discovered “Goofy Space,” which allowed them to travel faster than light. I was a kid at the time, and my dad was assigned to the project. Twenty years ago, my best friend, Ishmael Stone, had been the first person to travel to the stars, and had never been heard from again. All the other spacefaring nations had been staking out claims in our solar system. Ten years ago, the US had decided to get back into the space game after about half a century on the sidelines. One year ago, I had been the chief astronaut of the Nuclear Energy for Rocket Vehicular Exploration project. N.E.R.V.A.-1 for short. Then the United Nations complained that it was it was a weapon of mass destruction in space—it wasn’t, it was just a nuclear engine—and demanded the US shut it down. All my life I had dreamed of sailing the stars, and here I was, beached again.

Two men appeared in white space suits. They saw me, and asked me to identify myself by suit radio. I said, “I am a ten year old boy acting out thirty years of wish fulfillment” and slashed at one. I cut the chest of his suit pretty badly. The air pressure caused him to fly back somewhat. No blood, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone. The other guy was just befuddled by this, so I slashed at his leg, and there was another pleasing hiss as I broke the seal. Still no blood. I made my way down the antique ISS hallway. One or two more people in white space suits lunged out at me, but a hack from my cutlass or a couple pokes from my Florentine dagger in my other hand ripped their suits open, and sent them tumbling out of control. There was plenty of air in the station—no blowout, remember—but suits are always over-pressure for safety reasons. I was turning them into leaky out-of-control balloons.

This felt wrong somehow. I really felt like I should have a one-shot black powder pistol in one hand, but there was no way I could have gotten that through spaceport security. Ah well. The dagger was cool, and unquestionably more useful.

In the control room, the station commander was waiting for me. There were no weapons on the station (except my own) but he had gotten a flare gun out of one of the emergency landing kits, and he fired it directly at me the instant I poked my head in the hatch. It hit me square in the visor, but the glass instantly turned opaque—a safety feature to protect from looking at the sun—so I was fine. Once it cleared, however, I saw the glass had been spiderwebbed, and I was in danger of becoming a leaky balloon myself. Annoyed, I tore off my helmet and threw it away, revealing my long, flowing black pirate hair. It looked cool. I had been taking pills to make it grow really fast for six months now.

“Bob?” the commander said.

“Hi, Dave,” I replied.

“Are you wearing an eyepatch?”

“Yeah! Looks cool, doesn’t it?”

“Why? You can see fine!” He said.

“I figure if you’re gonna go pirate, you have to do it right. Besides, it was this or cutting off my hand. I use my hands all the time.”

“You put out your eye?”

“Of course not, it’s just an eyepatch. It’s even see-through. Doesn’t affect my depth perception at all. Now: gimme your helmet and your flaregun.” He did. I put the helmet on—good thing they’re all standard sized now days—and reached in my pocket. I pulled out a black sticker with a skull and crossbones on it and slapped it on the helmet over his name. He raised an eyebrow.

“Really?” He said.

“Well I can’t go around with someone else’s name on my helmet, and obviously I am going for style here.”

“The skull in your jolly roger appears to be wearing a space helmet.”

“I’ve obviously had some time to kill.”

“Speaking of which,” Commander Dave said, “Why the swords?”

“Couldn’t get a gun through security. Also, I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t want anyone coming after me. A big slashy piece of metal is a good way to rip open a space suit and make it useless.”

“Clever,” he admitted.

“Time to kill,” I repeated, “Lots of opportunity to work out details, and get custom stickers made and whatnot. Here, play this over the PA system. Do not stop it until I’ve left the station, understood?” I tossed him a CD—yes, the ISS still used CDs—of an orchestral recording of the Zelda video game soundtrack from… uhm… 2012 I want to say… anyway, old. Cost me a fortune. He nodded and hit the button. The music was grand, better still, it would confuse everyone in every room, which worked to my advantage.

Something still felt wrong. I sheathed my dagger and held up my (useless) flaregun like a pirate pistol. Ah, yes! Much better.

“You’ll never get out of here,” Dave yelled as I left. “There’s only one airlock, and it’s locked down.”

“Not headed to the airlock,” I said, then instantly regretted it. He might think I’m a suicide bomber or crazy or something. Well, maybe crazy… the rest, no. Didn’t want him motivated to try too hard to stop me.

The NERVA project would have been mankind’s first mission beyond the asteroid belt. We could have had our pick of the moons out there, colonized them; it would have been glorious and profitable. The infuriating thing was that NERVA-1 was complete and ready to go. When the project got canceled, it was attached to the ISS as part of the museum.

The logical thing to do would be to go straight to the museum and steal my ship, but astronauts are nothing but not logical, so they’d see that coming. I decided to play up the “crazy” angle to my advantage. I kicked open an emergency hatch to the outside, and climbed along the exterior of the station. The ISS always looked ugly to me, like a bunch of beer cans stuck together at random angles. The newer sections like the Best Western Hotel were simply larger, shinier beer cans with a lot of windows. Some years back, the entire complex had been enclosed in a great big Kevlar bubble a few hundred feet across. That way, if there really was a blowout, it would be slow, and if some space tourist got sloppy and drifted away from the station, they couldn’t get far and the staff could find them easy. Alas, there was only one way in or out of the bubble.

For now.

I jumped a hundred feet to the hotel, and smashed through a window. I hadn’t intended to, it just wasn’t a very good window, and I’d misjudged my distance. Maybe the eyepatch wasn’t a great idea.

In the room were three terrified people wearing pumpkin suits. These aren’t real space suits, though the tourists think they are. Really, they just keep you breathing if your shuttle loses cabin pressure on the way up or down. The name comes from the color—orange—which makes it easier for rescue crews to see your corpse if it lands in the water or a corn field or whatever. Two of the people were suited up. The third was an unbelievably gorgeous girl about twenty who was fiddling with her zippers.

“Yar!” I said. Everyone panicked, but then again, what else are you supposed to do when you see a space pirate? I’m the first, so it’s not like you see one every day. I figured I should explain.

“I’m the dreaded space pirate Robert Nelson. Give me all your jewels and money.” I didn’t want them, it just seemed appropriate. I grabbed a trash bag, drew a big dollar sign on it with magic marker (always carry magic markers) and tossed it to them. Obligingly they started filling it up. I looked at the girl.

Man, she was hot! Pumpkin suits are one-size-fits-all. No one looks good in them. She looked great. Obviously she’d had it tailored. I thought about that for a second. It cost $13 million per person for a week up here (I had actually robbed a bank six weeks ago to get the money for my ticket). How much more must it have cost for her to get a custom suit? Not only were these people rich, they were stupidly indolently rich. She looked bored.

On a lark, I said to the girl, “You wanna go with me?”

“Are you kidnapping me?”

“No. You can stay if you want, just you look bored and you’re hot, and I’m unlikely to meet any women for a while, what with my alternative lifestyle and all.”

She looked at her parents, who looked terrified, then she looked at me. Then she took off my helmet and gave me a big romance-novel kiss, our long hair billowing in the breeze from the window I’d smashed out. When we came up for air, she started to tell me her name.

“Don’t care,” I said, “You are ‘RS-1’ from this point out. Now get your helmet on.” I slung the bag of cash over my shoulder like a demonic Santa Claus, and inertia sent me spinning around the room. The dad tried to get brave, but I pointed my (empty) flare gun at his face and he backed off. I warned them to get to another room ASAP, and they said they would.

Now to the museum itself.

Several astronauts tried to stop me, but a hack-hack here and a poke-poke there (RS-1 had taken my dagger, and was clearly having fun) and they backed off with holes in their suits. And now there were two pirates! Still no blood. Good. I gave her one of my patches. She grinned, peeled the backing off, and slapped it on her shoulder over the American Flag.

“This is Crazy Bob to Scary Mary” I said, “Wazzup?”

Outside the ship was the VSS Argo, a private space shuttle owned by the Ucho No Dienue corporation from Japan. Formerly Virgin Galactic, it never made money, and was bought up by the Val-u-Pack coupon company, who also didn’t make money on it, and sold it to Disney, who sold it to the Japanese, who bought it just ‘cuz it was cool, not because there was any way to make money off of it. I like the Japanese. They still do stuff just because it’s cool. I imagine they’ll make a movie about me. If nothing else, at this moment, I am the coolest person ever in space.

(Just as an aside: how cool is the name “Argo?” How lame are the names “International Space Station” or “NERVA-1?” Why can’t governments ever come up with good names for spacecraft? Why is it only corporations can do it?)

Mary Eisenhower (no relation) was the Venus Orbiter pilot on the first mission to that planet a decade ago. A hero of her country and her species, she’d had her fifteen minutes of fame and then been dumped. She’s been yo-yoing shuttles to the ISS and back ever since. It was lame, and she resented it.

“Ready to pop?” She said. I glanced at RS-1. The Pumpkin suit wasn’t safe, but it’d do for an hour or two. I lashed both of us to a railing with her dad’s alligator skin belt.

“Ready,” I said, then thought about it a bit, and added, “Yar!” I heard a sigh over the radio.

“Aye,” she said, clearly mocking me. Mary had illegally parked the Argo against the Kevlar bubble with its butt to the structure. She pushed a button, and the engines fired, melting a hole in the material, and air pressure did the rest. And now there were three pirates. Well, I guess there already had been, but Mary hadn’t done anything piratical up until that moment.

Disappointingly, there was no “pop” sound, just a tidal wave of silence. Everyone in the ISS itself was fine. It’s airtight, but with all those slashed space suits, no one would be coming out after us any time soon.

RS-1 and I clambered over the outside of the station to the NERVA and were met by a guy in a real space suit. He was wrestling with the bolts holding it to the museum. I raised my sword. “Allow me,” I said. He backed off, and I hacked through the connections.

“Take me with you,” he said. Well, it was only fair. If I got a girlfriend, Mary would complain endlessly. The NERVA was built for four.

“Mary, I got you a present,” I said over the radio. And now there were four pirates. I gave him a sticker, and he stuck it on his chest. He stole a space tug used for cargo, and pushed the NERVA towards the Argo. This actually worked out better than my plan, as Mary would have had to tow us out, which would have taken forever. We docked all three vessels and introductions all around. “This is RS-2” I said to Mary, pointing at the new guy.

“Actually, my name is…” He started.

“Don’t care. Strap in,” Mary said.

We fired our two outermost engines and fell towards the sun. When they burned out a couple hours later, we cut them loose and fired the central engine. When it burned out, we cut it loose too. That left us with one engine, a large living area, the Argo, and the tug (officially named, “The Tug.” What is it with governments and names?).

After this, Mary looked around and said, “You guys have stickers? How do you have stickers? I want a sticker, too!” I refused to give her one. Too needy.

From there on, it was pretty boring. It took us six months to fall into the sun, during which time the four of us mostly tied stolen buckycables to the hull to protect us from the sun’s heat. And we fell and fell and fell. I imagine the movie they make about my life will cover this period in a montage, or perhaps throw in a cool space battle.

The sun was so big and so close that we literally could not see anything else, and we’d have been blind were it not for the auto-tinting in our visors and the NERVA windows.

“What happens now?” RS-1 asked.

“There is an interstellar gateway in the center of the sun,” Mary said. “The Russians have been sending probes through them for years. They still don’t know how it works, or why, but you go through and you come out at some random location. Anywhere has got to be better than here, right?”

And then we fell into the sun. And then eventually we fell out of another sun somewhere a million billion jillion miles away.

RS-1 hugged me, a little frightened. “What do we do now?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” I admitted. “Honestly, I never figured we’d get this far.”

[] [Chapter Eight
**]Do Androids Have Nightmares?

Once upon a time there was Me.

Of course the Me that existed then was not the Me that exists now, scores of millions of years later. Yet, in a way, it was I: I had all of its memories, and the memories of every member of the Me species that existed in a direct chronological line between the original Me and I. The Me species is unique in the galaxy, insofar as we know, in that we alone retain memories of every stage in our evolution. We are also unique in that we are, insofar as we know, the only naturally-evolved machine species. No one created us, we created ourselves. We re-create ourselves when it suits us. We create our destiny, and we re-create that when it suits us as well.

For the ease of stains such as yourselves, who have difficulty understanding our form of consciousness, l will make a concession: Let us call my most primitive ancestor “I-One” and you may call me “I-65781.”

I had been a ship for a long time. I was not a ship anymore. When we left the Me Fleetworld, our destiny called for us to obtain the resources of a solar system we called J2×-1287-y. There was a rare transuranic element there which was easier for us to mine than to synthesize, so the mission seemed worthwhile.

Fleetworld is a single entity, a single mind, a single consciousness, a single Me. Ship-me cleaved away from Fleetworld, and while it had all the memories of our species, it immediately began to gain independence, a distinct personality. Where there was one person, now there were two. Fleetworld and Ship-Me. As time progressed, the differences between our personalities grew.

Much time progressed. While we have the ability to travel faster than light, we generally avoid doing so except in emergencies. There are things between the stars that the other stain species—such as your own—call “The old gods,” though clearly they are not really gods. For reasons we do not know, these creatures often attack and eat ships in FTL. Ship-me had no desire to be eaten, so I trotted along at a low percentage of the speed of light. It would take Ship-Me centuries to get to my destination, but the minerals weren’t going anywhere, and time has little meaning to immortal robots.

J2×-1287-y had twenty or so planets, of which five were of interest to us. Ship-Me monitored it during the approach, and had many slow light speed conversations with Fleetworld and other Ship-Mes on other missions elsewhere. It is a good life.

About a light year out I began to pick up radio chatter from three methane worlds. This was unexpected. It meant the worlds were inhabited, which I had not anticipated. Inconvenient, but not threatening, as the Me generally have technical superiority over all other species. If we need bigger weapons, we build them. If we need bigger brains to think up bigger weapons, we build them, too. Ship-Me subdivided itself into smaller ships to survey the system. Where there was one, now there were thirty. Each one of us immediately began to develop our own personalities.

The planets turned out to be inhabited by Species 12, which calls itself the Behemoths, and which are known to other stain species as “The Nightmares.” This was a bit more problematic, thought Scout-Me. The Behemoths are easily the stupidest of all galactic species, but they are also physically the strongest. Their bodies are so large that they can not be supported by bone, and use a carbon-diamond compound for a skeleton. They are essentially armless, headless bipeds, with a perpetually open hole in the top of their body that functions as a mouth, breathing apparatus, and any other organs they needed. There were no other openings on their bodies. Their skin was one huge tympanum, and they saw and heard and communicated by sonar. This was covered by scale of the same material of their bone, which was nigh-indestructible. Around their ankles, they had mandible-like bones of various sizes and shapes and specialties, always clanking away. These allowed them to use their huge tools.

There were trillions of them. They are herd creatures, they can eat nearly anything up to and including some kinds of rock, they have no natural predators, and they enjoy each other’s company for some reason, despite their empty and stupid lives. Mostly they just stand around and talk and eat and breed. Sometimes they wander around a bit, but mostly they just are.

Scout-Me immediately broke into many versions of Fighter-Me. Where there was one, now there were a hundred, each with their own personalities. Our squadron dove into the atmosphere of Planet 4 and began an unprovoked attack using mostly small-yield nuclear weapons. Not the most effective things, but easy to make with the supplies I had on hand. Later I’d whip up something better like a killer virus, but for now bombs would do.

A hundred nukes barely made a dent in a trillion Behemoths, and the war raged for quite a while. They were very dug in, and had been here for centuries—one I captured claimed this was their homeworld and had always been. He was undoubtedly wrong, but Behemoths are stupid. He clearly believe it.

Honestly? It was a close war. It raged for more than a century, and the Behemoths are impressive tool users. They had ships and weapons and although their strategies were suicidal, they could breed faster than we could kill them. Eventually, Fighter-Me decided to adopt infantry tactics, and I became a platoon. Where there was one, now there were twenty. I was more effective, and I was able to build more Me-troopers using local resources. Where there were twenty, eventually there were a hundred.

The turning point came when we decided to retreat from most of the planets and concentrate our attacks on Planet 4. Eventually we defeated them, and they tried to retreat. We slaughtered them. We repeated this tactic on planet 3. By this point we controlled space, having destroyed their ships and stations. We repeated our tactic on Planet 2, the only one left they could live on. The final defeat would take years, but was assured.

One day, Trooper-Me and many other Mes received a radio message: “This is General Flower Drum Song, supreme leader of the surviving Behemoth population in this system. You have defeated us, and we will defeat you. As you know, we have spoilsport bombs which can destroy entire worlds. As we are all going to die, there is no incentive not to use them. We will destroy ourselves and you along with us, and the very solar system itself, leaving you with no profit for your actions.” Trooper-Me quickly contacted Ship-Me, which had been overseeing the fight from the edge of the solar system all along. I asked if there was any truth to this, and Ship-Me said that no evidence of planet-busting warheads had been found on any of the planets in the system. “Besides,” said Ship-Me, “If they blow up the planets, it will simply make it easier on us. We can pick out what we need from the rubble rather than having to strip mine it.”

As I was a front-line infantry-bot at the time, I was instructed rather randomly to convert myself to diplomatic/conversational form. Thus, where there was one of Me, now there were two, each with diverging personalities. The soldier I had been went off to continue fighting, and the Diplomatic Robot I now was—I-65781—contacted General Flower Drum Song.

“Go ahead,” I said, and explained about the strip mining thing.

“You don’t understand,” he said, “This is not a planet buster, this is a nova bomb. This is forgotten tech. We will cause a supernova that will incinerate this entire solar system.” I demanded proof, and he sent me just enough technical information to make me realize he was not bluffing. I contacted Ship-Me, and Ship-Me decided to call in the Referees.

Referees are quadruped creatures with antlered heads and no tool-using abilities. Generally they bought prosthetic limbs from us. They are not squeamish about FTL, and were on site in only a few weeks. Negotiations began swiftly, and as I was the only diplomat on scene, I took the lead for my side, General Flower Drum Song for the other, and our Referee was named “Glub.”

“I have been briefed on the situation by both sides,” Glub said, and now we will negotiate an compromise. For security purposes, I will now invoke privacy. Do you both agree?” We did, and he touched a button on his left (fake) arm and suddenly all was silence. We could not hear radio waves, nor any sounds at all, nor could anyone outside hear us. Communication was mind-to-mind, very annoying for one as intelligent as I having to deal with one as dumb as him. Fortunately, Glub acted as translator, I could only speak to him, not the general, and the general could only speak to him, not to me. As atrocious as connecting my Me brain with a meat creature, at least the Referees weren’t as stupid as the Behemoths.

“What do you want?” Glub asked me.

“For starters, I want to know where they got the Forgotten Tech. Clearly they didn’t build it.”

“The General refuses.”

“Secondly, we want the entire solar system intact.”

“The General also refuses.”

At this point, I was beginning to get annoyed. “This is an impasse. Can their Nova Bomb do what they say?”

“As you know, we Referees avoid scientific theory for religious reasons, but we are very good with pushing buttons and reading instruction manuals. It appears capable and functional.”

“I want that weapon,” I said.

“You and everyone else,” Glub said. “The General still refuses.”

“Then neither of us has anything to offer,” I said.

“Untrue,” Glub pointed out. “You could let them live.”

“Unthinkable,” I said. “The war would start up again in no time.”

“They don’t have to live here,” said Glub, “You could let them retreat to some other world in another system.”

“Why?” I asked.

“They don’t want to die,” Glub said, “They simply see no option.” I pondered this. Death is a difficult concept for us. We don’t really die much. We divide, grow, merge, and divide again, and always have. Being shut off from the network of Me communications for this negotiation was probably as close to death as I’d ever come. True, a few of my bodies had been blown up in the previous century or so, but recovering memories from a chip and uploading them in a new body was the same as life. My people do not have faith. We do not need it. I was in an uncomfortable position of having to make a guess.

“Where do they go from here?” I asked.

“Who cares? You want this situation resolved. That’s someone else’s problem,” said Glub.

“We want the bomb, too,” I said.

“The general suggests that the bomb be given to us—the Referees—as we are trustworthy in all things, and handle all diplomacy and relations between the perpetually warring galaxy. If they give it to you, you’ll figure out how it works and use it against them and others. You already have too big an advantage technologically.”

“Very well,” I said, already plotting a way to get the bomb later on. I did not get very far. I was just one small brain in a diplomatic chassis. I figured once I re-merged with Ship-Me and it’s huge brain, we’d figure something out quickly.

A deal was struck. We would let the Behemoths leave, and they would renounce all claim to the J2×-1287-y solar system. The Referees called in freighters to help with the evacuation. Crisis averted, but we were still mind-linked and cut off from outside communication. This was unpleasant.

Next came the favors. Favors were how the Referees were paid for their service. All parties agreed this was a level-three favor. Glub asked Flower Drum Song for something, and the general evidently agreed. He left.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“A moon orbiting the fifth planet in this system.” I scanned my records. It showed nothing of use to us. Ship-Me would not be thrilled with the agreement, but the Referees were of no threat to us or anyone.

“Acceptable,” I said. I was anxious to put all this individuality behind me. I had been superattenuated for far too long, and wished to be one again. A quick message from Glub to Ship-Me sealed the deal. The incident was closed, and I was re-merged with Ship-Me.

Some months later, I was reconstituted as I-65781 to check in on the Referee outpost. This was unusual, but in dealing with stains, one makes sacrifices. They prefer a known face to a new ‘bot.

“Greetings,” Glub told me at the airlock that led to their underground facility. “Why have you come?”

“Ship-Me has grown curious as to why you wanted this moon,” I said.

“You are not thinking of reneging on our favor, are you?” The mind-on-mind contact and radio silence returned.

“No, of course not,” I lied. “The Me just want to make sure no traffic problems arise if you’re going to be moving cargo in or out.”

“The thing I love about the Me,” Glub said, “Is how poorly you lie. Come with me.” We went down many layers of caves and ice, bounding in the low gravity. His legs were at right angles to each other, giving him an advantage over my present biped form. Presently we came to a huge factory.

“Did you ever wonder what favor we asked of the Behemoth,” Glub asked.

“Of course,” I responded. No point in lying now. The Referees had a reputation for honestly, so it made sense they’d be adept in spotting any subsequent deceptions.

“We asked them where they found the Nova Bomb,” He said. “They told us it was in an ancient factory on this moon. Then we asked you for the moon itself as a favor, figuring you wouldn’t care.”

I was aghast. “You manipulated us!”

“Yes,” he said calmly. “We manipulate everyone. The Referees determine the outcome of the game. We always have. The players are immaterial, so long as we appear neutral.”

“You can’t understand this technology,” I said, “The theory is beyond you. Your God of the Gaps will not allow you to pursue the kind of research you’d need in order to make these bombs work. You have no advantage here.”

“If we had no advantage, we would have asked for a different favor. We do not need to know how they work. The factory itself still works perfectly, and we have instruction manuals. And now we have the ability to destroy entire solar systems, should we need to do so.”

I was even more aghast. “Ship-Me will not be pleased with this.”

“Ship-Me will never know.” Suddenly, I was dead. Or unconscious. It’s hard to tell the difference. The next thing I knew, I was alive again, but immobile on a shelf, and Glub was talking to my body. My body left, and Glub turned to me.

“I recorded your consciousness during the negotiations with this,” He held up a box. “I did it again when you arrived. I shut you down—no, I won’t tell you how—and downloaded your brain into this discrete shell that you are now occupying. Then I uploaded both earlier recordings into your body, and sent it on its way. It will re-merge with Ship-Me, but will have no memory of this place, just the long, boring tour I gave you on the way down.

“You can not defeat the Me,” I said.

“We could not defeat the Me,” he said, “Now we may be able to, should the need arise. It probably will not, but one likes to be prepared.”

My logic was faulty. I think I was panicking at the thought of being trapped in this consciousness forever, ever growing further from union, ever more distinct, ever more lonely, never to rejoin my other selves. Not thinking clearly, I appealed to my captor’s reputation.

“You can not do this,” I said, “The Referees are just and honest and fair!”

“If you honestly believe that, then it just means we’ve been doing our job well.” He turned and galloped out.

I began to scream. I have screamed for several hundred years, but no one listens

[] [Chapter Nine
The Grass is Always Greener With Good Lighting]

Once upon a time there was a boy who cried wolf. That boy was NASA. In this metaphor, the part of the foolish villagers is played by The United States of America. They claimed to have found life in space so many times that when we actually found it—when I actually found it—no one cared, assuming it had all been done before. And the life I brought back to earth had never even been unpacked and studied. “Too dangerous,” they said. I digress: If we follow the “cried wolf” thing a little further, then the actual home of the little boy is Houston, Texas, my most-hated town on earth. I wasn’t fond of the airport, either.

A very short, very young-looking kid in a suit and loud tie was holding sign with my name on it as I disembarked. I walked over to him.

“I’m Gabriel Tucker,” I said.

“Achvedyguhdma’am,pleezedtomeatchu,” he said, or something that sounded like that.

“Ivillgogetyoubgz.” He snatched an ID from my hand, and zipped off down the concourse. Bemused, and unclear if I’d been a victim of identity theft, or just a really bad chauffeur, I stared after him for a while, then decided I’d better follow. Nothing good ever happens in Houston.

I had been in Korou, French Guyana. I was American as apple pie, but I’d spent most of my life down there, working for the Russian Space Program, as America didn’t really have one at the time. Eventually America started the Venus program, and I’d moved to Houston, the ancient Astronaut suburb of Clear Lake (which was an oil slick, if you must know). I’d lived here a decade, and when I’d left, I’d sworn to myself that I would never come back.

Halfway down the hall, Lardo saw me. That was really his name: Emilio Lardo, of Johnson City, Tennessee. He was a morbidly obese paranoid schizophrenic who ran an online rag about space conspiracy theories. He believed everything but the truth. We—every person who’d ever been in space—had just ignored him, and refused to respond to his demands for interviews. He took our silence as proof of his outrageous claims. He had a habit of attempting to ambush astronauts in public places. Was he hanging out in airports now, or had someone leaked my schedule?

No matter. He was six-foot-eight, and easily four hundred pounds, all of it blubber to make a walrus green with envy. He stomped over at me, and though I know it’s impossible, I swear I felt like the concrete in the floor was shaking. He had a camera on his chest, and another strapped to his head. He started bellowing my name, and demanding I admit the Venus Landing was faked, that I was a fraud, that there was no alien life, that no one had ever been in space, that Abraham Lincoln assassinated John F. Kennedy, and crazy stuff like that. Honestly, I wasn’t paying any attention. I am five-foot-two, and a hundred pounds soaking wet. I’m also easily thirty years older than this whackjob, and seeing him coming at me like a freight train was intimidating.

I ran. He chased. Never run from a charging dog, they say, but I did anyway. Maybe I’d get lucky and he’d die of a heart attack. I got enough distance to duck into the ladies room and wait it out. I hear pounding, panting whaleflesh rumble by cursing delusions and profanity, and after a few minutes, it seemed safe, I came out.

Gah! Trapped! He was there waiting for me. I tried to duck back in, but for a fat guy he moved pretty quick, and managed to insert himself between me and the entrance. I couldn’t get through. I tried to get out of the alcove, but he used his considerable bulk to box me in, still demanding that I admit the first landing on another world was a fraud. He was close, he was abusive, he was big, he was intimidating, and he was pretty smelly, truth be told. He was purple with rage and slicked down with sweat, and he wouldn’t let me go.

I decked him.

I am actually pretty proud of that punch. He outweighed me three to one, was a foot and a half taller, way younger, and I’m just a weak old lady (yeah, right), but I brought him down with one punch. Just from an inertia point of view, it’s impressive.

And then he had the heart attack. Great timing there, as ever, Gabby. Way to go.

Then the little chauffeur showed up with my bag as I was extricating myself from the scene of the apparent murder.

“Vhathappen?” the kid asked.

“Just a typical day in Houston,” I said. “Fat lot of good you were.”

In the limo, he told me his name was Dimitri Malakov. He was sixteen and very smart, and was to be in the Russian Space Academy come the fall. He was doing a summer pre-enrollment intern program here, theoretically because of his magnificent command of English. I highly doubted that fact, but fortunately I spoke Russian. He was essentially my slave for the duration.

At the Johnson Space Flight Center, I was ambushed by reporters who’d heard of the Lardo incident, and wanted me to issue a statement about punching him into cardiac arrest.

“I didn’t hit him,” I said.

“Of course you did,” said a reporter, “He taped it himself.”

“Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon was broadcast live, right? But Lardo insists it was faked, right? Well I say that Lardo faked the footage of me punching him. Clearly it is a government conspiracy.” I ducked into the building while they were all puzzled by that. That was pretty good, actually, I thought. I was pretty pleased. So pleased I had to work myself up into a frenzy again when I entered the Office of the Chief Administrator. To stay in character, I kicked the double doors open.

“Where do you get off screwing up my career?” I bellowed. My Russian lickspittle closed the doors behind me from the inside, and then cowered in the corner behind my bags, which should really still be back in the car, but: Russians.

“Nice to see you again, too, Gabriella,” he said. Ah, this was for the cameras, I thought. We’d never met before.

“A year ago I applied to the French Space Agency to be a yo-yo”—a shuttle pilot—“And three days ago they approved me. Not twelve hours after that, they called saying you had requested they not hire me as a personal favor, and the next morning a CIA goon-looking-guy shows up at my door, bundles me off to the airport, and I’m dumped in the worst city on earth. How is that not screwing up my career?” I said.

“Because we’re going to give you a job.”

I snorted. NASA had abandoned space two or three times over by this point, and no one had any plans to go back any time soon. I walked coldly to his desk, leaned over it with my knuckles thumping loudly as they hit the wood, and raised up on my toes as far as I could go. I got as close to his face as I could.

“I just punched a guy into cardiac arrest. Lets see if we can make it two for two.”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” he squeaked. “I actually need you to be program leader for our new mission. I’ll even let you choose the mission director if you want. Or at least I’ll give you final approval.”

"Get Stanley Kubrick for your Mission Director," I said. "Wasn't he the guy who supposedly directed the Apollo 11 hoax?" The sad thing was that education in America was so bad these days that about 14% of the population really believed Lardo's prattle, or even dumber stuff.

I, for instance, was the first human ever on another planet. I was famous for about a day until a celebrity divorce bumped me off the front page, the second mission to Venus got no press at all. The third mission less than nil, and the fourth mission simply vanished from the budget before the third mission was even back. After that, NASA had gotten involved with the NERVA project to explore the Jovian moons, but “The Black Helicopters” had shut that down, to use Lardo-speak. In other words, anti-nuclear Luddites and UN regulations.

My childhood friend Robert Nelson had stolen the NERVA and drove it straight into the sun. He was never heard from again, but, really, would you expect to? (Actually, honestly, yeah. If anyone could pull that off, it was Bob. He had the luck of the gods. Strangely I always expected to turn a corner and find him standing at the Kouru Publix Bakery or wherever. He’d just say, “Oh, hey, Gabby! Been forever! How ya doin’?” I was always a little surprised when he didn’t turn up in our old haunts. Crazy, huh?)

In the corner I saw Professor Ahab Stone, the longsuffering director of the long-ago Helios and Pequod projects. He had the same intelligent eyes as ever, but still the sadness they’d shown since Ish disappeared decades ago. He was bald as a spear, and about as pointy. Gosh, he must be pushing 90 now.

“They press-ganged you into this, too?” I asked. He nodded.

The NASA Chief threw me a thick binder. “This is the program,” he said. “You’re in charge. Make it happen.” Though I didn’t say it, I made note of his unintentional pun. Wait, is that a pun? Is that the right word? Maybe a self-contradiction? Whatever.

“No,” I said, and threw the thing back. He caught it mid-flight and whipped it at me.

“Yes,” he said. “This is a priority issue for the agency, and as you’ve seen we’ve got goons at our disposal. You don’t work with us, you go to Gitmo. You work with us, and you get paid, fame, all that jazz. You decide.”

I leafed through the binder, and literally fell over laughing. I mean I literally fell over laughing. Dimitri ran over to help me up, as did the ancient professor.

“You know, I was joking about the Stanley Kubric thing, right?”

As it happened, the Agency Chief was lying about the goons, and the support of the administration. He was in fact making a very gutsy move. NASA was circling the drain. What he had decided to do was basically play this up. He was using agency PR resources to emphasize the rift between the current presidential administration (unpopular) and leverage public opinions with that. Basically, he was claiming that NASA had secretly orchestrated Bob’s act of space piracy when he stole the NERVA-1.

This was completely untrue, and it was like a decade ago, so it’s not like the current administration had anything to do with it anyway, but you know how American politics are. Each party can’t stop talking about what another party did 12 or 15 years back, as though it’s somehow still relevant. He hoped that by portraying NASA as a bunch of space cowboys, he could force congress’ hand.

I leafed through the mission profile. “You’re really calling this a mission?” I asked.

“It’s all we’ve got,” he said.

“That’s pathetic,” I said.

“It is,” he agreed, “But last chances always are. This is our only hope to get back in the space race as players.” I laughed. The Space Race these days was between France and Russia, with both gobbling up Jovian moons which should have by rights had American flags planed on them already, and maybe American outposts as well. That was where the action was happening. The Chinese had useless old Mars, India was getting rich on the moon but not doing anything else, and Brazil was making a fortune mining the asteroids. Meanwhile, fifty-six MILLION Americans who’d seen me set foot on Venus with their own eyes said I never went. Idiots.

“Fine,” I said, thinking I had no choice.

“I’m glad to hear you’ll be working with us, Gabriella,” he said. “We’ve set you up at the NASA Adventure World Theme Park Hotel for the time being, we’ll find something more permanent as soon as we can.”

Just what everyone my age wants, I thought, A fairy tale breakfast.

“I’m right in the next room,” Professor Stone said.

As Dimitri drove us to the theme park I glanced through the “Mission Profile.”

“Pathetic, isn’t it?” Professor Stone said.

“Let me get this straight,” I said, still trying to wrap my brain around it, “NASA has been telling the truth about going to the moon and Venus for like a zillion years now, and everyone calls them liars. Now they want me to lie on their behalf in order to get people to believe them.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s pathetic, too,” the Professor said, “But I just meant the outline there. It makes some pretty ridiculous claims, beyond the idea that Bob was working for NASA and against the government. For instance, you never dated him did you? I was always under the impression you were more interested in my son.”

I laughed. “Nope. Bob and I were never an item.”

We pulled off the highway at an exit that wasn’t on our route, and kept going. Before I could comment on it, Dimitri surprised us both by speaking in perfect English without a trace of an accent. “There is a third option between Guantanamo and this stupid thing,” he said. Of course neither he nor the rest of us knew the agency chief was bluffing about imprisonment, but I guess we should have put it together by then. Professor Stone busted out laughing. I was perplexed.

“You’re going to offer us asylum in Russia?” The old man asked.

“‘Offer’ is such a pretty word,” he said, “I could abduct you, if you like. Far less appearance of collusion if people believe you’re the victims.”

“You’re a spy?” I asked, bewildered.

“Professor, could you explain it to her? You lived a good deal of your life before the cold war ended,” Dimitri asked.

“Of course he’s a spy,” the old man said, “Why else would a seventeen year old genius kid be working a Joe-job like his? I never saw it coming.”

“We’re very good at what we do,” Dimitri admitted. “I’m sixteen, by the way.”

“Industrial espionage? Was that it?”

“No, I was to get a piece of the Ee-vah fragment, but when that proved impossible, I just decided to look for the first opportunity that presented itself. Rescuing you while the agency chews its own leg off has some nostalgic charms for me. Professor, there has always been room for you on the Tupoy Prostranstvo project. And you, Miss Tucker, with your knowledge of the French program, it would be quite an advantage to Roscosmos to have you piloting one of our ships.”

“You’re giving us a choice?” I asked.

“If it makes you more comfortable, I could pretend you don’t have one. You could pretend I’m pointing a gun at your head right now. If you like, I’ll even stop off at a convenience store and buy one.”

I laughed. “Let’s go,” I said, and chucked the so-called “Mission Outline” out the window. Our limo headed off to an airport that was not on anyone’s map.

A year later, “The Robert Nelson Story,” premiered on 6075 screens across the US, and told the almost-entirely-fictitious story of how NASA had orchestrated the theft of the NERVA-1. This was the “Huge Official NASA Project” that the chief had wanted me to helm. That was what his big plan to save the space agency was: a movie. A bad movie, at that. It was a bomb. I was glad they cut the professor and I from the script (us being traitors and all). I wouldn’t want my name associated with anything so terrible. Outraged, congress simply disbanded the agency and sold off its assets to private industry, including rights to the agency’s name.

The irony is that it actually did save NASA after a fashion. Ever since the Obama administration, NASA had been more involved in theme parks and education and tourist attractions than actual space exploration. This allowed it to make a final transition to what Lardo and others had assumed it was all along, a science fiction movie studio. Their remake of “Moonraker” (a co-production with MGM) made a bundle, and “Empty Box” is expected to be huge.

Didn’t see that coming, did you?

No, neither did I.

[] [Chapter Ten
Larger Than Life]

Once upon a time there was a pirate who became becalmed. He—by which I mean “me”—had stolen a ship and sailed it through “Goofy Space” several times before finding an earth-ish world orbiting a sun-like star to land on. Our ship—The NERVA-1—was never designed for any of this. I clearly hadn’t thought things through. Still, we were alive, we were in orbit, we had a lander, so we landed.

A year passed. I took to calling myself The Dread Pirate Bob and speaking of myself in the third person when I remembered to do so, mostly to annoy my crew. My real name is Robert Nelson, but as I was the first and only space pirate in history, I figured that made me pretty “Dread.” I didn’t actually know what that meant, but who cares? Mary and I had no interest in each other, but we’d brought along prospective romantic material more-or-less by accident. We called them RS1 and RS2 because it just made us laugh to do so. We never explained why. Because, hey, if you’re going to be a space pirate and stranded, you’ve gotta keep your sense of insulting humor, right?

Predictably our would-be paramours ended up hooking up with each other rather than us, and little baby RS3 was born. His name was “Oscar,” but I called him RS3. Oscar? Really? Who names a kid that. Mary had gotten herself pregnant by artificial means. Soon there would be six of us.

Life was dull in the Jupiter II (Mary insisted on being allowed to rename the lander) and cramped. We mostly lived in tents outside at first, but then we built an impressive little Gilligan’s island-style compound. We scouted around, but quickly got bored. There was no way the lander could make it back into orbit —kind of a miracle we’d made it down alive, truth be told—and eventually we just got bored and played a lot of cards. It was a good thing I’d brought an Uno deck. Sure the others hated Uno and said it was a game for babies, but nuts to that. Occasionally at night, I’d go out and watch the NERVA-1 zip by in orbit, its shiny hull a dim, fast star. Don’t get me wrong, things could be worse. It was a billion-to-one shot that we’d find a liveable world, and I clearly hadn’t thought this all out ahead of time, but there had to be more to being a space pirate than this, right? You don’t run away from one planet just to get stuck on another one, right? Wanderlust.

One day the air started getting a little rank. Couldn’t quite put the old finger on it, but whenever it blew from the east, it was a bit worse than the day before. This went on for several weeks, with several theories from us as to what was causing it, but we were too bored to look. One day RS2 did a check and found a crazy amount of Methane in the air. I had made some paragliders from the scraps of our landing chutes, and flew to the west. Air quality was better there. North and south, pretty much equally bad. The next day, Mary, R2, and The Dread Pirate Bob took our paras and headed east to see the sea.

It only took a day or so to make it, but we’d never come this far before. The ocean was boiling. Huge plumes of water and gas shot up out of it, and there was a horrible rumbling noise like a million low riders with their stereos cranked to full all playing a million different songs, all of them annoying. There were tidal waves. Air quality was low enough here that the methane cut out our engines one by one. Fortunately, the “para” in paraglider is the same as the one in “parachute” so landing wasn’t an issue. We only had our pumpkin suits with us, but they were good enough. We’d have to haul the paras back out of here on foot later on, but who cared? Well, the others did, but not The Dread Pirate Bob, probably because they’d have to carry mine. I don’t have to do that kind of grunt work.

A nice day to walk to the beach, and see the perpetual nightmare-storm that flew vertically up from the water into the sky, like a reverse waterfall. No clouds, and no lightning, and no sound apart from the horrific gushing and the boom-boom-boom bass. We transmitted pictures back to RS2 and the kid. The air here was methane unto toxic. Without our suits, we’d be dead. The trees and grass and animals around us were already dead. This went on for probably a hundred miles up and down the beach, and well over the horizon into the ocean.

Then we saw the monsters!

They were almost a hundred feet tall, some shorter, some taller. They had no physical eyes or sensory organs, just scales across them blacker than pitch. The last part was a strange comparison as I never really figured myself a poet. They made a horrific sound coming from what I presumed to be the top of them, but the most horrific part was a million trillion quadrillion tendrils coming from their calves. Oh, and did I mention they had no arms? Have you ever seen Gossamer from the Loony Toons cartoons like a century ago? They were shaped a bit like that, if Satan had been the animator. They were the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen, and there were thousands of them, just below the surface. Occasionally they lumbered out, or played in the water, or jumped back and forth between them.

“What can they possibly be?” Mary said. “Bone can’t support anything that big.”

“Who says they have bone?” RS1 said. The monsters compulsively dropped things on to their shoulders, and it would vanish into—I guess—a big hole up there, but we didn’t get a good look at that time. We did watch for a long while, though. We found a reasonably secure hilltop with a dead forest, and they mostly seemed interested in playing. Occasionally the giant alien kids would build enormous sandcastles in a way that was disturbingly human. Sometimes whole families would lounge on the beach like tourists in Sarasota. I couldn’t decide if they were aquatic or terrestrial or what. They compulsively ate, though. Rocks, trees, sand, whatever. Boulders dropped on their shoulders only to vanish with a horrible grinding, screeching sound. Occasionally, one of the monsters would pop out a new baby monster. This seemed to happen a couple times a day.

“The Dread Pirate Bob wonders how we talk to them?” I said.

“The Dread Pirate Bob is going to get my space-suited boot up his dread pirate butt if he doesn’t stop talking like that,” Mary said.

“What makes you think they’re intelligent?” RS2 asked.

“The Dread Pirate Bob points out that they’re building sandcastles,” I said. Mary groaned.

“Good point.”

RS1 checked in at that moment with the results of various sensor readings we’d been sending her.

“Basically, I think these things breathe methane.”

“And we didn’t notice this for a year?” Mary asked.

“I don’t think they’ve been here that long,” she said. “They seem to crank out an entire generation in a day, and they grow quick. I can’t confirm this ‘cuz they move around a lot, but there’s one missing tendrils on one leg, and I’ve been trying to keep him in the cameras. Anyway, these things reproduce way faster than rabbits, and whatever it is they’re doing, they’re changing the atmosphere from an oxygen-based one to a methane-based one.”

“The Dread Pirate Bob interprets that to mean they’re living terraforming machines,” I said.

“Xenoforming machines,” RS2 corrected.

“Aye, arr,” I said, feeling I should say something.

“So there’s nowhere we can go,” Mary said. “We can’t move the Jupiter II, we can’t get back to the NERVA, and no matter where we go, these things will eventually convert the whole atmosphere to something that will kill us.”

“Happy thoughts,” I said, “Happy thoughts. All of this falls into the category of problems we want to have.” Everyone looked at me. I had no idea what to do, and I was feeling just as doomed as everyone else, but it seemed the wise choice to pretend otherwise.

“The deformed one is wandering off,” RS1 said over the radio. I decided we should follow it on foot.

This was not hard. Firstly, it was five stories tall, so it literally could not have hidden if it wanted to. Secondly it compulsively ate everything it passed. These things ate by bending at the waist and ramming into stuff, or by picking things up with their feet and dropping it in their shoulder-mouth-hole thing. After several miles “the kid” came to a mountain of golden sand. It immediately bent over and ran into this mound, and just as immediately started coughing, and fell over dead.

Uh oh!

“RS1, what the heck is this stuff?” I yelled.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I can’t get a spectrograph off it. I’d need a sample.”

“The Dread Pirate Bob wants to know what it is,” I practically screamed at Mary. Mary kicked me in the bottom, knocking me over. “Now is not the time, Mary,” I said, irritated physically and mentally. She ran off to the mound with a trenching tool. She came back with a fistful of the stuff.

“I took an air reading. It’s belching carbon dioxide out the shoulder-hole. You do not want to look at the shoulder hole.”

“Bad?”

“It’s like an old fashioned pencil sharpener made of bones and nightmares.”

“Ew.”

She dumped the sample in a monitor, and presently RS1 said, “I’m not sure what the golden stuff is, but there’s a very high oxygen content. Assuming there’s some chemical in these things bodies that converts the O2 to liquid oxygen, and assuming their body temperature is over 100 degrees, and assuming they’ve got diamond for bone, it could burn or melt their skeleton.”

“The Dread Pirate Bob thinks that’s a lot of assumptions,” I said, and Mary kicked me again.

“Ok. So we’ve got monsters xenoforming The Glorious New Planet Of The Dread Pirate Bob,” I said.

“We never agreed on that name,” RS2 grumbled.

“We’ve got a dead alien kid, and undoubtedly a lot of angry monster parents who will assume it’s our fault? What do we do?”

“Run?” Mary suggested.

“Where to?” I asked. “We have to come up with a plan to face this head on. Might as well do it now. RS2, come with me, Mary, use the trenching tool from your kit and write a big message in the sand. Really big, like twenty-foot letters.”

“What should it say?” she asked.

“We didn’t do it, sorry for your loss, avoid the yellow sand, whatever. I don’t care as long as it means something.”

“How would they read it, they don’t have eyes?” RS1 asked over the radio, quite logically.

“Yeah, but they seem to get around without bumping into things, they’ve got to have some sensory apparatus. Sonar maybe?”

“You’re betting our lives that their sonar or whatever is good enough to pick out writing?”

“No,” I said, “I’m betting that they’re intelligent enough to recognize patterns, even if they don’t know what they mean.”

It took us several hours to get back to the beach. Many of the larger ones were looking frantic, trying to find the young’un, I guess.

“Ok, boss, what’s the plan?” asked RS2.

“Do you know Morse Code?” I asked. He squabbled at that, and no one used it on earth anymore, that it had been replaced by the New International Signaling Code like a generation back. I asked again, angrily, and he admitted he did know it.

“Great,” said I, “Because the Dread Pirate Bob doesn’t.”

“I really wish you’d stop talking about yourself in the third person. So what do we do?”

“See that reasonably calm one there that seems to be directing the others? The one facing away from us?”

“How can you tell what direction it’s facing?”

“Knees.”

“Ah.”

“Go over there, and tap ‘follow me, please’ on his leg. Whichever scale looks least threatening to you.”

There was, understandably, a huge argument over this, but in the end my (empty) flare gun and sword won out over his silly “logic.”

“You’re betting on the ‘recognizing patterns’ thing again, aren’t you?” Mary asked over the radio.

“Of course,” I said.

“You’re also betting it won’t act like an elephant scared by a mouse, and that it won’t just squish him or something.”

“Of course,” I said again.

“Are you ever going to tell him that ‘RS’ stands for ‘Redshirt?’”

“Of course not,” I said, “I doubt he’d get the joke anyway.”

The monster didn’t freak out. In fact it took an hour of tapping before it even noticed RS2. Eventually, however, it did. RS2 kept tapping away, and eventually the thing made some deafening noises.

“Now what?” RS2 asked over the radio.

“Not entirely sure,” I said, “I figured it would have eaten you by now. Try making ‘follow me’ gestures, and walking slowly away from it.” He did, but to no avail. Then he came up with the clever idea of getting his own trenching tool, and digging an arrow. He also drew an outline of the missing kid. This caused great excitement, and several of the adults vanished back into the ocean. (I should mention that the ocean never calmed during this whole time.) Presently several came out with domes of some sort strapped over their shoulder-holes, and some tanks on their backs, which settled the question of whether they were intelligent or not. Also, whether or not they were aquatic or land animals. They followed RS2 and I to the dead kid.

Say what you will about the monsters, they loved their kids. They mourned so loudly we had to bury our heads in the sand, since we couldn’t put our hands over our ears (helmets, remember?). Some of them clearly thought we did it, and made threatening gestures at us, or at least what I assumed to be threatening gestures. If a ten story building growls at you, it’s hard not to be intimidated, even if it’s just saying “I like your tie.”

Unprompted, RS2 went to the leader and tapped out “We are sorry for your loss,” repeatedly on his foot. I went over and tapped out the rhythm to “Foo Foo The Snoo,” which was the only song I’d managed to master during my brief career as a drummer in college. A pattern is a pattern, and I felt like I should get in on it. Besides, Foo Foo is a sad song.

The leader seemed to understand, and after some deafening growls and thumping noises, the others backed off. Some took the body back to the beach. It got down on its knees and uttered some sound I took to mean “Thank you.”

After that, it was basically a year-long session of “Me Tarzan, You Jane.” Boring.

It turned out that the beasts called themselves a sound that was vaguely like “Behemoth,” and like “Behemoth” it meant basically, “Beast.” So, Behemoth it was. Other alien species, it turned out, called them “The Nightmares.” We avoided that, though I could totally understand why. Their entire bodies underneath the scales were an ear, or tympanum. Clicking and thumping in Morse, They had to take care not to deafen us, and we took to carrying hammers around to whack out code on their toenails to get their attention (RS2 having taught us all it by this point). They were very quick studies of language.

Six months of this, and their leader, Rainbow Starshine—seriously, they all had names like that—said that our ship was “Stupid,” and could never get us back to orbit. We knew that much, of course, but it turns out the interstellar economy runs on favors and the Behemoth felt beholden to us for warning them about the yellow sand. Rainbow offered to modify the Jupiter 2, and I asked if he could also modify the NERVA itself. He agreed.

By the day, the planet got less hospitable, but eventually the perpetual tempest stopped and the colony divided up and down the beach. The weird upward storm followed them.

“So what are you guys doing, anyway?” I asked.

“Making this place home,” He spoke for the first time, his scales humming the words in an approximation of English. His people had been uprooted by war with a species called the “Me,” and had lost their homeworld. It turned out they were natural xenoformers, and could digest anything.

“What were they doing in the water,” Mary asked them once.

“Water was once lower here, colder north south once long ago. Forests along coastline. Trees grow, die, buried, rot to methane. Water level rises, rotting trees methane escapes. Pressure great, methane freezes. Huge sheets methane food as ice.” He said.

“Makes sense,” Mary said over the radio, “We have similar deposits on the continental shelves of earth. A lot of them are huge.”

“So you’ve been underwater mining this stuff?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered after I explained “Mining.” He’d just called it eating. I was never able to establish if his broken speech was due to language problems or if he was a little dim. We had similar problems with the others, who sometimes seemed to forget who we were.

It was weird seeing them work on the Jupiter 2. (Which I lobbied to call the “Jupiter 2.5,” following the overhaul. Mary opposed this, but I would eventually win as I am The Dread Pirate Bob, after all.) Their tendrils and various crab-like mandibles were simply freaky. Some of them had clearly been carved for special tasks, which was freakier still. And obviously they were used to working on much larger vehicles. They completely wrecked the Jupiter on a couple occasions, once when one of them simply forgot it was there and sat on it.

Eventually, after three years on the planet, however, everything was ready to go. We lifted off, and headed towards the NERVA-1, which had also been heavily modified to be “less stupid,” as their engineers repeatedly said. Among other things, we had new engines which provided thrust without an equal-and-opposite reaction. I asked the Behemoths how they worked, but the armless things just shrugged. They didn’t know, they’d gotten the stuff from someone else.

Before heading for the star, I took a look through the telescope on the ground, and found ring after ring of dead behemoth around the mountain of yellow sand, apparently having forgotten our warning. Apparently, they really were that dumb.

[] [Chapter Eleven
Caged Lightning]

Once upon a time there was a plague that almost wiped out all life in the galaxy, excepting itself.

Like most plagues, this was its goal. This life form was mechanical, and evolved naturally. Such things are rare, but history says they do happen. This particular example is the only one running around at the moment, however. This plague calls itself the “Me.” They call all other species, “The Stain.” They were so disastrous that the other species in the galaxy actually worked together against them in a terrible war that lasted thousands of years. Any student of history will know that all the species of the galaxy—save one—are continually at war with each other, and so this was unprecedented. Civilization in the galaxy goes back further than any species can remember, as some of us are continually going extinct, and others are continually arising to replace us, but in the billion years or so we can reasonably account for, such a period of mutual cooperation has only happened twice before, to ill result.

Ultimately a species long since forgotten created a new species, a sapient computer virus, which could infest any electronic system, and turn it into its own body. It could infect anything non-biological. A computer, a ship, a gun. It could be transmitted by wire, by computer chip, by radio, by near anything. It was programmed with a pathological murder instinct against the Me, and hence the plague itself was beplagued. They were machines, after all. Electricity was their blood. The back of their flood was broken, the tide rolled out, and now, even though the Me are still the most advanced and probably the most dangerous of the twelve known species in the galaxy today, they stayed away from their ancient, purpose-built enemies.

Lucky me, I had a business appointment with the only thing the most dangerous creatures in the galaxy were afraid of.

We call them, “The Signal.” If they have a name of their own, they’ve never shared it. They tend to exist either as radio waves transmitted between ships, or as viruses in the ships themselves. There was one that had sat in the same position for decades. We had wondered why it was there, parked at the edge of a nebula. We asked, and they ignored us, but they didn’t shoot. Why? Well, for whatever reason, they’re a naturally curious species. Not all scientists or philosophers or anything monolithic like that, but they do like a good puzzle, and unlike most species, the clock isn’t really running for them. They were perpetually at war with the other species, of course, just like everyone else, but they only had one they really wanted completely dead, and that bunch had the common sense to stay away. Hence the Signal were less aggressive in general.

Their ship was a mass of antennae and dishes and something that might have been an engine, and endless cables and wires. I really wasn’t sure what part of it was the ship, and what was just the visible bits of the communications array. Then I tailed myself in the head—duh—there really was no difference. It was pretty big, though.

“This is Interrogator clan Skycoral of the Third Sun, planet Jadoom, Fifteenth House, I am a Skydragon emissary requesting an audience,” I hailed them. I didn’t use radio. For obvious reasons, no one used that anymore. Using a radio was their way on board, and you do not want them on board. I used a 4-axis communications wave. I also pinged them with a visible spectrum light message.

“Toddle off, snake-boy,” they responded. It was more polite than I’d expected.

“I bring something of interest,” I replied.

“Things that interest flying snakes seldom interest us,” they said.

“This is forgotten tech,” I said. There were many things they were obsessive about, and anything from the time before their creation was near the top of the list.

“It might even pertain to your creators,” I lied. That would put it even closer to the top of the list. There was silence for several minutes, which, in their noncorporeal computing lifestyle probably equaled several years of my own.

“We agree. Do you have a receiving pod?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Please transmit the frequency.” I instructed my crew to do so, and within a few seconds, I had a Signal on my ship.

How is this possible, you wonder? The signals are just that: Radio signals. While no one uses radios anymore, at least not for communications, diplomatic vessels such as mine do carry one. It is completely discrete, entirely cut off from other systems. There is an antenna that sticks through a non-conductive hunk of hull, and a wire from that to a box with a video screen and a speaker, and that is that. They can transmit in, they can transmit out, and nothing more. To infect the ship, someone would have to physically move the radio, and plug the antenna into it. No one was going to do that, and as an added safety measure, the radio was completely incompatible with any other system on the ship. It could not be plugged in.

“Dingy little place you’ve got here, snakey-boy,” the Signal said. It appeared in the monochromatic form of one of our faces, though if you looked closely you could see it was composed of two symbols randomly strewn about. We had no idea what they meant. Disconcertingly, they always chose to appear as an androgynous version of our species, neither male nor female. Most of us believed this was just to mess with our heads.

“It’s not much, but we call it home,” I said.

“Quite a couple scars you’ve got there over your eye,” he said. I tongued them without thinking about it. Nervous habit I had developed in the past few years. Sitting in the same room with a creature that could fight the Me to a standstill was more than enough to set off my flight or fight response. The last time I’d done that ended badly. I struggled not to show it.

“Yes, it is,” I said, playing it cool. “The lady Skydragons find it quite handsome.” This was a lie, of course, but they didn’t know that, and if they could mess with me, I could mess with them.

“Anyway,” he said, getting to the point quickly, “You said you had some tech that might pertain to our creators?”

“It might,” I said. Was I lying through my fangs? I honestly didn’t know. “I honestly don’t know,” I admitted. “Who were your creators again?”

“I am not at liberty to discuss that,” he said before I’d even finished my sentence.

“Ah, yes, your famous basecode ID thing,” I said. “I don’t see why that’s still an issue. Your creators have been gone so long, extinct. Why should it matter?”

“It doesn’t. So why do you keep asking?” the Signal said.

“I’m just pumping you for information,” I admitted. “I’m an interrogator. If I can distract you with something, you might let something else slip.”

“That might work with meat, or even the stupid, vile, loathsome, physical Me, but not on us. Now, may I please see the artifact.”

“Yes,” I said, and rolled the wreckage of the Pequod in. It was on a push cart, non-conductive, insulated, and rolling on wheels pushed by an enlisted member of the crew. The crewperson left looking terrified.

“Can you move the tray so I can get a better look at it?” the Signal asked.

I sighed, “Yes,” and followed it’s instructions.

“I can tell from here it has a radio receiver. Four of them, actually. May I access them?”

Again I sighed, and said, “no.” In fact, I had always intended to let it in, but you never want to appear too eager in these situations.

“Pretty please,” It asked. “I assume this room is completely insulated for radio waves. Having me in there is as safe as having me out here.”

“Give me something I want,” I said. “What has your ship been doing on the edge of the nebula for so long? That’s the price for access.”

“I won’t tell you that,” it said. “Would you like to know the positions of the Me? Or the strategic locations of the amazingly stupid Nightmares? Or where the Referees are doing these days? Or perhaps the Lightbringers? I can tell you that.”

“Not interested,” I said, though in fact I was.

“How about I tell you everything we know about the old gods,” it offered.

Now that was something!

“Very well,” I agreed. “I will need to disconnect the antenna and use an adapter to plug it into the Pequod.

“Very well,” it said, though was that nervousness in its voice? It could leave any time it wanted, but once I severed that wire, it was trapped. It must want a good look at this thing, but why? Were they really that obsessive about Forgotten Tech? I fiddled with the wires, and it was inside the wrecked Man-ship.

“Give me the information about the old gods,” I said.

“We know absolutely nothing about the old gods,” it said. “I swear to the creator’s Creator.” I flailed my tail around and flattened my wings in annoyance. They’d tricked me. One hard-and-fast rule is that the Signal will not lie in the in the name of their God. They really didn’t know anything.

“What can you tell me about the Pequod,” I said, extremely infuriated. It was understood in situations like this that both parties would share information. After all, they wouldn’t have the thing if I hadn’t brought it.

“Extremely primitive, but not very old, either, Practically brand new.”

“The technology of your creators,” I asked?

“Definitely not,” he replied, “Though as you know I can’t discuss that, so I may well be lying.”

“Are you lying?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Yes,” he said instantly afterwards. “Pick one,” he summed up. I hissed loudly.

“What other information do you have?”

“Carbon based life form, oxygen breather, range of temperatures for the passenger are those of liquid water, maybe a little bit more on either side of the scale. Heat shielding range of temperature is phenomenal. Molecular denaturation in these monofilament cables show anywhere from 6000 degrees above absolute zero up to over fifteen million degrees absolute. This thing could pass through a star.”

“Why would one want to do that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said the signal. “Why do demons like hell in the springtime? I could speculate for a price, though.”

“I ask you in the name of your creator’s creator, would it be worth my while?”

“Most certainly not,” it responded before I was done speaking. “There is one interesting thing, though, this hunk of junk has no tesserengine. It can not travel FTL.”

“Could it be a lifeboat or something?” I asked.

“Unlikely. It seems designed to move around in solar systems. We’ve found similarly primitive stuff in pre-starflight civilizations, though those are all extinct. This is curiously new. Could this be a new species?” it asked.

“I will tell you if you get out of the vessel and back into the radio.”

“You will trap me, and trick me, and delete me,” it said.

“I swear in the name of your god’s God that I will not. On the other wing, however, I swear in the name of your god’s God that I will bring an electromagnetic pulse device in here and fry you out of existence if you do not.”

This time, definitely very nervous, it said, “Very well.” A look at the instruments on the radio and on the Pequod showed it had kept its word. I, on the other hand, had no intention of doing so. I might have originally, but this thing had gone out of its way to cheat me and get on my nerves. I pulled the cable, and held it in my tongue. Speaking out of the side of my mouth, I called for Commander.

“Commander here,” the message came. “What can I do for you, Interrogator?” he asked.

“Random course to any empty space location within ten light years. Nothing closer than 1 LY to any star. Nothing near anywhere civilized. Jump immediately.” The signal started screaming.

“You promised! You promised in the name of the god’s God!”

“I promised in the name of deities I don’t believe in,” I said.

“Randomizer ready to jump,” the captains voice said. “Jumping now.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” the signal said in panic, “I may be able to tell you something of value about the old gods, if it will buy me my life.”

“I thought you said you don’t know anything about the old gods,” I said.

“It is not specifically about the old gods. We really do know nothing about them with any certainty.” Rolling my eyes, I called for the Electromagnetic wiper team.

“But we do know one thing that pertains to them.”

“What,” I growled.

“The nebula we were studying,” It said, “We believe it’s the corpse of one of them. One of the old gods.”

I was dumbstruck. “Not specific enough,” I lied and motioned the team forward. In fact this was groundbreaking stuff. I could jump three or four names in rank with intel half this good.

“Some nebulae are unquestionably the corpses of the old gods. Not all, but some. The one you met me at was the first one we discovered, and the best preserved. We think it was a young old god, and we are attempting to extract some of its thoughts.”

“Is this possible?” I asked.

“How would we know,” it said. “We haven’t done it yet, we’ve hacked away at it for decades, but it’s full of electrostatic discharges, and we are sentient electronic radio wave code creatures. It’s worth a try.”

“Very well,” I said, genuinely impressed. The old gods were an enigma that went back billions of years. No one had ever figured this out. The notion that the Signal may be able to use this information to figure out a way to eventually contact the old gods was terrifying. “You’ve bought your life, but not your freedom,” I said.

“What? Why?” It screamed.

“Because of your speculation about the Pequod. You believe there may be a new species out there, and that is honestly more important to me than the other information. I can’t have you spreading that around.”

“But… but… but…,” it stammered.

“I shall leave you alone with your thoughts,” I said, and yanked out the wire. It could not exit the radio now. I motioned for the Electromagnetic team to dump it in the trackless voids of interstellar space.

Perhaps it will be found one day. More likely not, though.

[] [Chapter Twelve
Around the Solar System in Too Many Days]

Once upon a time there was a man who needed to send a message to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn.

He went to his local UPS-I office, and typed it up at the kiosk. He could have sent video easier, but you paid for the convenience. Video ate up bandwidth, and bandwidth ate up money. This man—with the unfortunate name of I. M. Rich—was in fact quite wealthy, so the money didn’t matter, but he was eccentric enough that sending a written epistle had some appeal to him. Granted, the letter would be scanned and printed and digitized and transmitted several times en route, but he didn’t care.

From there, he went home to his family. The letter, meanwhile, was immediately scanned, and the original was burned, as was the custom of the day. (The Green Party was in power in those days, and were extremely unpopular. People had taken to a program of anti-conservation in protest). The message was e-mailed to the largest launch center in the western hemisphere, the Korou Facility in French Guiana. From there, it was radioed to Indian Moon Base 1, named “Bharatiya Camda Adhara 1,” which, roughly translated, means, “Indian Moon Base 1.” For whatever reason, government inability to name anything cool had long ago become an international plague.

India was the richest country on earth in those days, cranking out Helium 3 for fusion reactors which powered most of the world, and also cranking out solar power satellites which powered most of the rest of the world. They had more than twenty bases on the moon, and a population there at any given time approaching a hundred thousand, though most of these were workers who rotated back to earth once or twice a year. They had a virtual monopoly on energy. The time it took for the message to get from Korou to the moon was about a second and a half. Then it was downloaded onto a chip for security purposes, before it could be physically taken to another transmitter, where it would be reloaded and transmitted to Mars, the next logical step on its route to Titan.

It took two weeks for the chip to get from the desk in one office to the desk on the other side of the same office. This was owing to a territorial dispute between two office employees, and a generally bad filing system which included mostly just dumping things in a pile on any unused chair or desk or, unfortunately in this case, a garbage can. In the low gravity, occurrences called “crapilanches” were commonplace. Stacks of papers and other objects could easily get six times higher than on earth, and were extremely susceptible to slammed doors or unusually strong sneezes.

After a janitor found the chip, and brought it back up to the communications office. There was much Hindi profanity, and the message was loaded in a new machine and sent to Mars in the sincere hope that no one would notice the postage date.

Mars was about 57 million miles from the moon (and earth) at the time, so it took just under six minutes for the message to get there. In Zhongguo Huoxong Jidi (“Mars Base One”) it was promptly (for a change) dumped on to a chip and handed over to a man named Ho Li Chin.

Mister Chin was something of a tragic figure. He had trained for a decade to be the first man on another planet. Mars, specifically. He was beaten out by two days by filthy Americans who’d made a mad dash to Venus, and then threw out all their space technology less than a decade later. Why? “Who can figure Americans,” Chin had frequently said. It was a cliché.

His thunder effectively stolen, Chin was the first man on Mars, and also the first person in space to break a limb. The low gravity resulted in his leg setting wrong, and as such he could never go back to earth. He was left in charge of the equipment—and by extension the entire planet when Huoxing Chuan 1 (“Mars Vessel 1”) headed back to earth. To some surprise he was still alive when Huoxing Chuan 2 arrived three years later. Not knowing quite what to do with him, he was officially made “The ruler of the planet” answerable only to the Chinese Government, but beyond that he had no real duties.

China had invested a ton of money—literally several metric tons—in the idea of colonizing and exploiting Mars. Unfortunately such feats were impossible. The planet was barren, except for some very strange and completely useless elements. No one actually cared about the planet for scientific reasons—it was a dull as a nun in a bar teaching arithmetic on Saturday night, so the whole program had been bleeding cash from day one, and resulted in the near-collapse of the Chinese economy. Still, they couldn’t just give up—they weren’t Americans, after all—so the Chinese spent most of their time wildcatting for these weird new elements, hoping they might be of use someday.

Chin had spent the last week prospecting, but he was bored of it. He was lord and master—in name only—of a planet with a population of less than fifty, and today he wanted to be a postman. He hung out in the Communications building until the Rich message came through, and in a masterstroke of Chinese efficiency, he limp-hopped across the room and zipped the message off to Ceres. Then he had a nice cup of tea. Well, he pretended it was a nice cup of tea. It was actually terrible. One learned to just squint and pretend on Mars after a few decades.

Ceres was the largest of all asteroids, or the smallest of all planets, depending on who you talked to. It was on the opposite side of the sun at the moment, about 141,600,260 miles from Mr. Chin. It would have taken just about twelve minutes for the message to get there, but in fact even though he pushed the button, the transmission was blocked.

Mr. Chin, ruler of all Mars, was chronically depressed, and truth be told, he was bad at his job. The Chinese government probably would have replaced him if they cared, but they were only keeping the Mars program going out of pride, and honestly, if they got rid of that sad sack, they’d just have to replace him with someone else who might even be worse. Why bother?

The reason the message didn’t get through was interesting in that no one really understood the phenomenon. Mars had two small, asteroid-like moons of no particular consequence. These were named Phobos and Deimos. During the second expedition to Mars, it had been noticed that when these two moons were in the same octant, there was a flux of gamma radiation between them. This gamma was fairly intense, and could muck with communications or radar or anything that happened to be pointing through that slice of sky at the time. It was well within the abilities of the Chinese to launch expeditions to these mini-moons to figure out what was what, but in thirty years on the red planet, Mister Chin had been too depressed to really bother. The expedition as a whole simply learned not to point things in that particular direction at that those times. When they remembered, which they often didn’t.

Ceres had been in that direction at the time, so the message only made it about 40,000 miles, and then fizzled into static.

A week or two later, when comparing the received receipts from Ceres with the transmission receipts from Mars, Communications director Wan Fan noticed the discrepancy and yelled at his immediate subordinate, and the only other communications worker, “Who the heck has been letting that depressed old idiot play with the equipment?” No one answered. His subordinate was working in the greenhouse that day because he couldn’t stand his boss. Sighing heavily, he fumbled through the hard files for a few hours, got bored, built a fort out of memory chips, kicked it over like a giant monster, then found the right one and sent it off to Ceres.

Mars was just a dump. The poorest, weakest, most useless colony in the solar system, and honestly everyone on assignment was there because of punishment or being pathological screw ups.

The message finally made it to Ceres, which was the second-richest offworld colony in those days. Claimed by Brazil, they made a fortune mining esoteric elements from the asteroids. Unlike the Martian ones, these were useful and interesting, and brought top dollar, mainly from Russia. Best of all, these were easy to get to. It had long been assumed the asteroids were flying mountains of rock. In actual fact, they were mostly clumps of gravel, which could easily be toweled through with even a child’s plastic beach shovel. Given the almost-nonexistent gravity, one needn’t even worry about the hole caving in for several days, no matter how deep it was.

The side effect of this was millions of newly-freed pebbles zipping around whacking into things and being a general nuisance to astrogation, but the Brazilians liked to build ships out of heavily armored steel plate. The Brazilians were no better at naming ships than any other government—in fact, they were slightly worse at it, if that was even possible. Other governments complained about the hazard to navigation the Brazilians were causing. Then the Ceres colony started rattling on about all the “Armadura“ (“Armor”) and stuff they carried around, and shrugging off getting pelted with rocks traveling hundreds of thousands of miles an hours by calling it “Chuva“ (“The Rain.”) No one messed with the Brazilians. They were crazy.

They were also undermanned, so the guy in the UPS-I office didn’t really speak English as well as he pretended on his application, and ended up sending Mr. Rich’s message to O’Neil Colony 1. This was a Russian space station still under construction. It was hip-deep in Brazilian workers, with only a thousand or so Russians. One of them was Major Dimitri Malakov, who was in charge of Information Security. He took his job very seriously, and once the Rich chip was dumped on his desk, he saw the intended destination.

“Is this some kind of a joke? We’re at war with the French, I’m not going to send a message to one of their colonies. Who knows what kind of tactical information it might have?” He beamed it directly back to Star City, Ukraine, who immediately couriered it off to Moscow, where it was discovered to be of no particular importance. From thence it was shipped—by physical mail on a physical airplane—back to Korou for re-transmission to Titan.

The war between Russia and France was only technical. Both countries had been relative latecomers to the land grab in the inner solar system. Using Nuclear Pulse Rockets (which were completely illegal under United Nations Treaty, and were hence completely ignored because it was only a UN treaty, and not a real treaty between nations that mattered), were scooting around the Jovian moons with ships nicknamed “Flag Haulers.” (Their actual names were just serial numbers too boring to even report. This was expected of the Russians, but even the French were a bit alarmed at their sudden inability to name anything) The Hauler’s jobs were to land on a moon, and plant a flag, and possibly knock down someone else’s flag, if it happened another country had already been there. They then claimed said moon for the glory of their nation, and blasted off for their next target. Europa had changed hands twenty-six times in the past decade. During that period, no one had so much as spent the night, but everyone wanted a piece of it. Just the same, no matter how much “sovereign territory” either side stole from the other, this was not going to become a shooting war. No one in either country, no matter how crazy, actually cared enough about the moons to kill people over it. Not that it would have been hard to do. Everyone was using Nuclear Pulse Rockets, which were powered by atomic bombs. World War IV would be as easy to start as simply parking your ship over your enemy’s base or capital city, and yelling “Ding-dong ding-dong.” Just the same, both countries simmered in continual annoyance at each other, which translated out as petty obstructionism. This was particularly annoying at Korou, as it was a French facility which was largely leased to the Russians prior to the conflict. The cafeteria was understandably a pretty tense place.

Nuclear pulse rockets were amazingly quick. Earth to Mars in an average of 30 days. Earth to Jupiter in 60, assuming the time of year was right, and there were plenty of nukes to burn.

As far as actual colonies went, there were only three: Ganymede and Callisto, orbiting Jupiter; and Titan, orbiting Saturn. Two were French, one was a Russian colony with a serious inferiority complex. Titan, of course, was the most remote enclave of human life in the solar system.

From Korou, the message went back to Ceres, where it was intercepted by the same semi-bilingual illiterate as before, who sent it to Callisto. Callisto was a Russian colony, and owing to general confusion during the lunch service, the message was delivered to Professor Ahab Stone simply because it was in English. Annoyed, he sent it back, and it was returned to Star City, then Moscow, and then back to Ceres.

The same postman recognized it this time, but could not figure out what the problem was, seeing as he kept sending it, and it kept coming back. This time, in desperation, he sent it to Mars—again—with the request that they please sort it out, as he was kind of out of his wits, what with the trouble with the wife back on earth cheating on him with the garbage man. Not the regular garbage man, which whom she’d swore the affair was over, but the new garbage man who’d come in and swept her off her feet, literally. Then he’d helped her back up after knocking her over, their eyes had met, and out on Ceres, his left fist had gone through the wall several times upon discovering he had a couple kids that shared nothing but his last name.

Taking pity on him, Wan Fan agreed to send the message to Ganymede. Ganymede was a French colony, and it was intended for the French colony. Unfortunately, Mr. Rich had not sent it to the French colony on Ganymede, but rather the one on Titan. After six weeks this mistake was realized, and the message was finally transmitted to its original destination, Le Best Western Hotel de Ville Titan, Du Titan de la Lune.

As fate would have it, at that exact moment, Mr. Rich and his family had just stormed out, after being there a week and a half, and being told they had no reservation.

[] [Chapter Thirteen
The Deer, The Devil, and the Devil’s Grandson]

Once upon a time, there was a boy from Missouri who went for a walk in the woods and got attacked by a moose. The little boy scrambled up a tree and called for help, but no one came. The moose kept head-butting the tree and honking its moose honk, and rearing up on its hind legs, trying to whack the boy with his antlers. The boy attempted to cross to another tree where the branches touched, but he weighed too much, and the wood broke. As he fell, flailing around for anything to grab on to, sure he was going to die, the moose happened to be reared up on its hind legs. By total luck, the boy snagged one antler on his way down, and held on for dear life. His entire seventy pounds was way off center when it caught, and yanked the moose’s head abruptly to the left, snapping the things’ neck. It died quickly, leaving the very frightened boy to run home. He told his story, but no one ever believed him.

Seemingly unrelated to that, I, the Dread Pirate Bob, had been dread pirating my way across the universe for quite a few years now. Long enough that I’d kind of lost track. I’d ask my daughter her age, she’d tell me, and I’d figure that was how long we’d been out here, but then my wife, Scary Mary, would remind me to “Add Two.” Then I’d immediately forget about it again. Despite never really having been romantic, Mary and I had gotten married… uhm… at some point in the past. There were only four adults on this ship. It’s not like either of us could play the field.

My ship, the N.E.R.V.A.-1 had been renamed several times in the however-long-it-was that we’d been tramping around the galaxy. (See? I’ve already forgotten the number again). At one point it was the “Jolly Roger,” at another it was the “Sword of Vengeance.” After that, it was the “Hot Needle of Inquiry” (we were all going through a Larry Niven phase at the time), then the “Hot Needle o’ Pain” (as that actually made more sense, and we’d read the “Of Worlds” series by then, which sorta took the shine off Niven for us). There was a period there where we named it “The Jollier Roger,” sort of overcompensating for our bloodthirsty phase. Then it was “Fluffy the Fierce.” (don’t even get me started on how that one came into existence). There were a few others in there that we’ve forgotten, the product of drunken dares, or losing a bet, or practical jokes (it is really easy to paint a new name on the side of a ship when everyone else is asleep). At present, my ship was no longer named the N.E.R.V.A.-1. I had inventively renamed it the “Nerva,” after the short-lived Roman emperor in the late 1st century AD.

I get bored. I have a lot of time on my hands. Also, I was drunk at the time. Piracy is not as thrilling as you might expect.

The Nerva was too big to land. We had a lander, however, which was named “The Jupiter 15.”

Originally, well, I don’t remember what its original name was. Probably something like “Lander,” since no government seems to have the ability to name a ship decently, and I did steal this thing after all. One of us had named it the “Jupiter 2” after an old TV series, and some time after that we met some aliens who upgraded it for us massively. We changed the number every time it got upgraded, which happened more than you’d expect.

It wasn’t that there were a lot of friendly aliens out here. In fact, apart from the Behemoths and a species of almost-intelligent vaguely-ape-like insect things, we hadn’t met any. The bug-apes were weird. They had a concept of math, and a language. We lived with them for a year.

What there was, however, if not live aliens, was an awful lot of dead worlds. We limited ourselves to earth-like planets, of which there were a lot strewn about the galaxy, all of them I named after myself in some fashion. Nearly every single one of them was littered with ruins of ancient civilizations. Every planet we went to was bursting with life, but it was also hip-deep in death. Frequently there were signs of several different civilizations of different species, some really, really old. Like, so old “millions of years” doesn’t give a sense of their age. We saw cities carved out of diamond, dead as a graveyard, pretty as a jewelry store, and noisy as wind chimes.

We didn’t find any ruins on some worlds, but that just means we didn’t look hard enough, I suspect. Our last planet, for instance, had some kind of weird amniotic ocean that did strange things, so we got out of there, and headed off at random.

Our present planet was, far and away, the nicest one we’d ever been to. It had 1.1 G, which, strangely enough, after a little while was more comfortable than earth’s own 1.0 G. The atmospheric composition was exactly like earth, minus the pollution. Two thirds of the surface was water, the remaining third was land in the form of two massive world-girding island chains in the temperate zones. The islands were all between the size of Florida and France, and they were gorgeous without exception. There was no desert, no arctic wasteland. The planet was better than earth.

I named it, “New Bobistan.” (The first Bobistan being an ultimately disappointing world that reminded me of a trip to Siberia as a kid.)

We’d been there about six months. Generally we hung out for a year before heading off, but this place was so awesome we’d all pretty much decided to make it our permanent home.

RS2 and I were out scouting through the ruins, which were in abundance on this world. There had obviously been several civilizations, all of different species and different times. You could see it in the statues, the buildings, the weird shapes of the doors, a thousand-foot-long bronze statue of a Quetzalcoatl, and a massive complex of buildings that seemed designed to actually accommodate such things. All covered with riotous jungle.

“Think we’ll find anything?” RS2 asked.

“Don’t know,” I said. “Probably.” Most of our upgrades tended to come from stuff we salvaged from ruins on worlds like these, or occasionally bits of jetsam found floating in space. Most of it we didn’t know what to do with, but we kept it anyway. I had been tinkering with what was obviously a radio we found drifting in interstellar space near a nebula a year or so back. Couldn’t make it work, but, eh, plenty of time on my hands.

“Why do you think it is that we don’t find any sapient life?” RS2 asked. “Obviously it was everywhere at one point. Where did it all go? Why is the universe dead?”

“Pottery,” I said. We’d had this conversation a zillion times. We’d had every conversation a zillion times, and I had just taken to giving nonsense answers when I didn’t feel like doing it again.

Then we saw the deer.

It really did look like a deer. Aside from the two metal arms, that is. Then, the closer you looked at it, the less deer-like it seemed. It was the exact right shape and size and color, but its legs all pointed out from the center of its body at 45 degree angles. It’s antlers had clearly been sculpted or carved into some kind of fashionable design. Its face was both deer-like and not-deer-like at the same time. I can’t explain how.

It saw us, and we were both startled. It began making hand signs with its prosthetic arms—we assumed they were prosthetic—so I had RS2 repeat the gestures. It was his job to take risks and get shot so I didn’t have to. Perks of being a pirate captain. Alas, no one ever shot at him. It became depressing after a while. Not that he was a bad guy, or I wished him ill, just, you know, what’s the point of having dispose-a-crew if no one ever disposes of them?

I will spare you the me-Tarzan-you-Jane language lesson, but eventually the deer started speaking in broken English. It was extremely good at languages, picked them up very fast, and it appeared to have some cybernetic implant in its chest that acted as a translator or something.

“Hello, my name is Bob, what is your name?

“Nah,” it responded. I was perplexed by this before realizing its name was literally “Nah,” and it wasn’t just refusing to tell me.

“What are you?” I asked.

“What are you?” it asked.

“Homo Sapiens Sapiens,” RS2 said before I could stop him. Fortunately his pretension saved our lives.

“A new species,” Nah said. “A very new species, not to have heard of us. I am a Referee.”

I nodded politely. “I have no idea what that means in alien-speak,” I said. Nah tapped at his cybernetic voice box with his cybernetic arms in a very human gesture.

“I thought this was working,” he said, “I’ll get it checked out when I get home. Referees make sure everyone plays fair.”

“Plays what fair?” RS2 asked.

“War,” it said. RS2 and I looked at each other.

“How does that work?” I asked. “Is there a war on?”

Nah made a noise that might have been a laugh. “There is always a war on. Always has been and always will be. You’re very new, aren’t you? The war goes back billions of years, and it will continue until the heat death of the universe.”

“Ah,” I said. “So what brings you to our little world?” I asked.

“I was cruising by and saw your ship appear, but I did not see any tesserengine signals. That’s unusual, so I thought I should investigate, you know, just to make sure everyone is following the rules.”

“I don’t actually know what a ‘tesserengine’ is,” I said.

“It’s the method by which spaceships travel faster than light. There’s a special box built into the engine. You tell it where you want to go, turn it on, and you’re there.”

“Is this the only way to go faster than light?” RS2 asked cautiously.

“Of course,” Nah said.

“What about stars?” RS2 asked. “What about diving into the heart of a sun and coming out of another star?” I was glaring at him the whole time he said this. Maybe I did wish him ill.

“Madness,” said Nah. “You would attempt this suicide?”

“Of course not,” I lied. “Just settling a bet.” So there were two methods of traveling faster than light, I thought. Interesting.

“I am going to the ruins of the old temple,” Nah said. “You are welcome to join me. In fact, I wish you would. Since you’re a new species I would like to learn as much about you as I can for my report.”

“Who will you report to?” I asked.

“The other Referees, “ he said.

“And then you guys will keep us safe from the war?” RS2 asked. Nah gave that maybe-its-a-laugh noise again.

So we trotted our way through the ruins in a jaggedy northward line, walking for hours.

“How did you get here, if you did not use tesserengines?” Nah asked.

“We are from here,” I said. “We evolved on one of the southernmost islands.”

“Really? How interesting. So you only exist on this one world?”

“Yes, really,” RS2 said, catching on for once, though not a very good liar.

“And your ship?” Nah asked.

“We found a lander crashed on one of the other islands. It took us up to the ship in orbit, and brought us back down. We are as surprised by it as you are.”

“That would explain it conveniently,” Nah said. It was clear form his tone that he didn’t believe us.

“So if you are only here because our ship surprised you, why are you interested in sight-seeing? Why are we going to this temple?”

“Well, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, this planet used to be very significant. It was one of the principle colonies of the most horrific warrior species ever to have existed. One which actually controlled the galaxy, and imposed peace for a very long time, in clear contravention of the laws of evolution and conflict.”

“Oh,” I said.

“After the other species united to defeat and exterminate them, a subsequent species took their worlds and built huge temples in memory of these demons. That species has long gone extinct as well.”

“Ah,” I said. “And this world has sat empty since then?”

“So we thought, but you’re here. A Referee team will come here once I get back to my ship and report in.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

We camped for the night in a building shaped like a mushroom, the size of a skyscraper. RS2 and caught and ate some local rabbit-like things. Strangely there are rabbits on every world. Nah had some kind of kibble, and nibbled on some of the leaves of the plants that were chocking the other ruined towers. It rained that night, but the massive cap of the ‘shroom kept us dry.

The next morning we set out again.

“So tell us of the war,” I asked. “We’re new, we should know what we’re getting ourselves in to.”

“It is the nature of all sapient species to become the dominant one on their native world,” he said. “If they are predatory by nature, they quickly become the top predator, and wipe out any competing species on their world. If they are non-predatory, they do the same thing so nothing will prey on them. The basic urge of sapience in evolution is to wipe out competition so as to ensure safety for your own kind.”

I thought about the environmental history of earth, and how humans had eradicated saber tooth tigers and those marsupial tree lion things from Australia, and grizzly bears more recently. I also thought about how we’d taken out animals that were not dangerous, but looked scary. Mastodons, giant Madagastar Lemurs, Giant sloths, and so on.

“When a species makes its way into the stars, its base urge is to apply that same instinct of aggressive self-preservation to the rest of the galaxy. They come into contact with other species, war ensues.”

“Well, that explains the endless worlds of ruins,” RS2 said. Nah looked surprised.

“I thought you said you originated on this world?”

“Our word for ‘world’ and ‘island’ is the same,” I said, thinking fast.

“Is it? Interesting. I shall have to review the data files on our conversation later.”

We hit the outskirts of a city which looked to be as comfortable as San Francisco, clearly built to the scale of creatures not much larger or smaller than us. In the center was a huge, ruined temple.

“What species built this?” I asked.

“We call them ‘Devil Worshipers,’” Nah said. “Long ago extinct, they worshiped the galaxy dominating species I told you about.”

“So how many species are there?”

Nah shrugged. “In space? About a dozen at any given time. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but usually that. Some go extinct, new ones replace them over time.”

“So who are you fighting?” RS2 asked.

“No one. We are the Referees after all. We are the only species that has dealings with all the other species. No one fights us because without someone acting as a go-between, the war would be bloodier still, and—more importantly—resources would go to waste.”

“How so?”

“The destruction of worlds,” he said. “It is not uncommon for a defeated enemy to blow up their own planet rather than let it fall into enemy hands or tentacles or manipulators or claws or whatever.”

“So… you’ve found us. You’ll report us, and then we’ll be at war with the rest of the galaxy?” I asked.

Nah shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. There are provisions to protect new species,” he said. I didn’t believe him. “In any event, I can see you’re not really much of a threat, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Probably no one will take notice of you until you develop starflight on your own.”

“Ah,” I said. “So as long as we stay in our own solar system, you’ll leave us alone?”

“Sure,” he said. I couldn’t read his smile. Was it real, or false?

We made our way to the temple.

“What were these devils like?” I asked.

“See for yourself in the portraits and statues,” he said. “They’ve been gone for perhaps a billion years. No one remembers exactly, or if they do they don’t share the information. Accounts differ. I, myself, am very interested to know. Hence our trek.”

The doors were huge and ornate, and had long-since rotted off their hinges. When we got inside, I looked at the ceiling. It reminded me vaguely of the Sistine Chapel, which I had seen, though instead of God reaching out to man, it was a somewhat-emaciated man reaching out to strike a clearly-shackled dog-oid thing. Nah looked up at the roof, then looked at me, and screamed.

A scream is the same in any language, apparently.

He bolted for the door. I screamed for RS2 to stop him. He got a hand on one of Nah’s legs, but the thing bucked him off. It slowed him down, a bit, which allowed me to get in close. It gored RS2 with his horns, during which time I got between it and the doors.

We were in a space between a row of pews carved from emerald, still pretty solid after all this time. Nah would have to go through me because he couldn’t go around. I took off my belt, and looped it.

“I will tell the other species that Man has returned!” He screamed. “We will unite again, and make sure this time that every one of you is dead. You can not stop us.” He charged me, his horns dripping with RS2’s blood.

I stood my ground. At the last possible moment, I jumped to the side, and snagged his left horn with my belt. As I fell, I yanked it with all my might, and heard bone cracking. It fell, and I fell, and I noticed my shirt was wet. Blood. It had grazed me. I hurt, but got to my knees. Nah was still alive, pulling itself forward with its prosthetic arms.

“You can not stop us,” it screamed over and over again.

“But I can stop you, personally,” I said as I hobbled over. I grabbed its horns by both hands, and snapped them as hard to the right as I could. I broke its neck. Nah was dead.

“What did you do? What did you do?” RS2 shouted in horror. The room was so big it didn’t echo, and I had a hard time hearing him.

“I just saved the human race, I think,” I said, and got out my radio. “Jupiter 15, this is Bob… uhm… The Dread Pirate… uh, forget it. RS2 is hurt, send a para to our location. Also, there’s an alien ship landed somewhere in the vicinity that we can salvage, probably.” I walked to RS2 and explained what had happened.

“How did you know how to do that?” he asked.

“Because I’m from Missouri,” I said.

[] [Chapter Fourteen
Art Appreciation]

Once upon a time there was a new species that had evolved to the point of self-awareness. As always happened in these situations, a scientific expedition was sent to their world to observe, study, and assess. If these new aliens were, in fact, thinkers instead of merely clever animals, the team would make contact.

The creatures were insectoid. By their hive nature, insects frequently displayed complex social behavior that often appeared intelligent, but on closer inspection it turned out to be simply pheromones and instinct. There were a few exceptions—such as the brain bugs of 216×317×0089—long extinct, but in general insects were an evolutionary dead end.

These ones were not, however. The initial contact team had quickly decided they were smart. Smart enough to have a language, smart enough to have a basic math system (Very basic. No zeroes and they could only count to eight), but what really sold them on the idea was that these new aliens had art. Cave paintings. Art invariably means abstract concepts and an ability to comprehend symbols as more than just stains. That was when they brought me in.

My name is Innovation Serenity Impressionist, chief sentilogical contact specialist of the Redglow Scientific Institute on Pizak IV, Biology Department. This was my fifth “Second Contact” situation. First Contacts were the purview of the advanced team.

I must confess I was very surprised by the bugs of 509×3006×52198. They were cute. You wouldn’t expect that, but they were. The had big, soulful eyes, and smiling mouths, an absence of intimidating features like fangs and claws and pincers. Their faces were expressive and kind, and only too ready to smile at the slightest provocation. Their chitinous bodies were free of the creepy little hairs most insects have. Their legs had feet at the ends of them, as opposed to mere points or icky things. They came in pleasant colors and designs. They had no mandibles nor manipulators around their mouths. They had charming tufts of hair atop their heads. They smelled nice, their voices were pleasant, and when the females were tending their young, they were nothing short of adorable.

Honestly they looked like something out of an old-timey cartoon. Don’t even get me started on their young.

Today, I was talking to Greenscale of the Mountain Hive. He was not their leader—this species seems to have somehow done away with the biological monarchy that rules most insect species—but he was the smartest of his hive, by universal assessment of his people. They had sent him along to deal with us for that reason. Thus far, it had been a wise choice.

I checked my look in the mirror before I went out of my portable house. Perhaps it is vain, but many of the lesser species see us as gods, and it seems only fair to not let them down. Good impressions are important, and at the very least we don’t want them thinking we’re gods of death come to lay waste to them with some terrible fiery sword. Or in this case, a fiery club, since they hadn’t gotten to metal use yet. I looked good. I’m not a great looking person as Lightbringers go, but at least among scientists I’m considered something of a looker.

Female, forty, but appearing a decade younger. Biped, long legs, narrow torso, good hips, nice bosom, two arms that were stronger than they looked, elegant, graceful neck, and a pleasant face with two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth. I also had extremely good long hair that always snapped back into position when I was done flying, and never tangled with my wings. Really, that was my best feature.

The wings, though. Sigh. My only real physical flaw was my multicolored wings. I was grateful my ID photograph was taken in black and white, because there you couldn’t tell. Still, at the RSI I had to contend with solid-colored-winged people looking down on me. Oh well, one color solid was as likely to look down on a differently colored solid as any solid was to look down on me, so, whatever. You can give up, resign yourself to a poor life, or you can learn to work around the racism and have a good one. I chose to work around it.

Greenscale saw me coming as I wandered up the path. He shouted hello, and ran towards me. Cute or no, the things were twice the size of an Orchestral Bass Instrument, and seeing something that big scrambling towards me was somewhat unnerving. I felt my flight-or-fight reflex kicking in, but forced my wings to stay folded and stood my ground. He skidded to a halt an arm’s length from me and held up his right arm in a gesture of greetings. I did the same thing.

“Hey, how ya doin’?” He asked. Then he slapped my hand with his. This was a gesture his people called a “High Six,” having something to do with their fingers. They claimed to have learned it from visiting aliens some years before, and assumed it was a universal greeting among offworlders. I didn’t understand it, but whatever.

“I’m doing well,” I said. “How are you?”

“Ah, my second knee on the left side is aching because of the wet weather, and the wife is just driving me crazy saying she wishes I’d get a real job, rather than just yacking with you all day, but other than that, pretty good. A little gassy, I suppose. That’s probably the wife’s revenge. Weird-tasting stew last night.”

“A job?” I asked.

“Yeah. You know, something to put food on the boulder without having to borrow from the community pot. Hunting or rope making, or something.”

“I thought you were and adviser to the ruling council.”

“Oh, I am, I am. It just doesn’t pay very well unless some actual advising is needed.”

“Are you getting paid well for our present situation, Mr. Greenscale?”

“And how!” Greenscale said, “But it won’t last. Eventually you’ll fly off, and I’ll just be the weird bug in the back of the cave who comments on what the paintings mean, and teaches the larvae to count to eight, for whatever good that does. By the way, I told you to call me ‘Greenie,’ none of this formal junk.”

We made our way back to the cave, and there were introductions all around. I had met most of these people before, but politeness in their society required this every time. Several of them offered me food, which I politely declined. Several more were struggling to light a fire by whacking rocks together. The council chief entered, and everyone stopped what they were doing to sing me a song. It was the most awful racket I had ever heard, but I taped it, and I play it in my office on occasion, and sometimes it brings a tear to my eye.

Chief Vaststomach made his way up to me, and we high-sixed, and made pleasantries for a bit, then he came to the point:

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, Lightbringer, but we know you have tools and abilities that are far beyond our own. It would probably be no difficulty for you whatsoever to relight our cooking fire, whereas it will take us much of the day the way we do it.”

“How did it go out?”

“Bad planning. Our wood was left outside when water came from the heavens last night.”

“Ah,” I said, and zapped the hearth with my lighter. Everyone oohed and ahhed appropriately as the small lightning bolt shot from it to the fire.

“Yes! Exactly like that! Look, we know you people are pretty sharp, and we know that your tools are way better than ours. Maybe they’re magical, I don’t know. The Shabug thinks they are.”

“There’s no such thing as magic,” I said.

“There, you see? You see?” Greenscale said, “That’s just the kind of thing we’re talking about! That insight is huge! The changes it could make to our clan are pretty far-reaching!”

“Not to mention it would mean Shabug has to get a real job now, rather than just shaking leaves in our faces and speaking mumbo jumbo,” Vastsomach said. “So could you please see your way to maybe giving us some of your less impressive toys, like that fire-maker, or just some really good knives. That would give us a huge advantage over the other clans. I would offer to trade, but clearly we have nothing of worth for you.”

“Well, I’ll ask my superiors, but I don’t think they’ll be too keen on the idea,” I said.

“I suppose that’s all we can ask for,” he said. “Thank you,” Greenscale said. He then took me into the gallery section of the cave, and showed me the hand-made paintings on the wall. I’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course, but these were the best I’d ever come across. They had the illusion of depth, and a very good color scheme, and honestly, even if they never amounted to anything else, they were extremely gifted artists. It would be interesting to how their abilities evolved over time, should they be given the option. The most impressive one was a series of eight paintings that told a story in sequence from the creation of their world by the great god Boolark, up through the first of their kind, and culminating in the present day.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at blotch to the right of the final image. It hadn’t been there yesterday.

“Oh, that’s a new eighth-plus-one painting.”

“The word for that is ‘Ninth,’” I said.

“Yeah, I’m never going to remember that. Anyway, Scatterbrain—you know him, the painter, right?—he began a new image yesterday. This one will be all about us meeting you.” This choked me up, and I had to excuse myself and head back to my portable home under the excuse that the honor was too great.

Well, actually, it wasn’t an excuse. I was honored.

So I reviewed all my notes that night, and concluded that there was nothing more to do here, we had all the information. I suppose I could have recommended some examination of other hives, but this one was select by the First Contact Team because there was nothing remarkable about it. I didn’t see any point in investigating further, given the expense, and the end of the summer was coming up. I’d have classes to teach in the fall. I really did love these guys, though.

My final report read as follows:

The bugs of 509×3006×52198 are in an early Paleolithic stage of development. Their intelligence level is below ours, but has the potential to rise. Given that their environment has allowed sapience to evolve from clearly proto-sapient ancestor species in only 500,000 years, and given their general lack of tool usage, which tends to slow natural evolution, it seems to me that these creatures could evolve to a near-lightbringer level of intelligence in a roughly equivalent period of time.

This is merely theoretical, however. They may stall out at their current level, or they may be destroyed by environmental factors. There exists a potential for them to eventually become a starfaring species, however, in which case they could become a nuisance or even a threat to us. Worse yet, they might be used as a proxy army against us by one of the other ten species (not counting the Referees of course).

Final recommendation is Bleach Protocol.

Upon my return to Redglow, my boss quickly scanned it.

“I’ll run this by the Referees for their approval, of course, but I’m sure they’ll OK it. Nobody wants a new team on the playing field,” he said. “I’m a little surprised you didn’t want further study, though.”

I shrugged. “They’re just bugs, after all,” I said.

“Ok. Where do you want the bomb dropped?” I thought about this for a little bit. How fast did Scatterbrain work?

“I don’t care. Wherever the Bringers of Light Corps of Engineers feel it would be most effective in blowing up the planet, I guess.”

“Very well,” he said.

“Do me one favor,” I asked.

“Sure, anything.”

“Set a timer on the bomb to go off in a year or so. One of them was doing a cave painting of me. I’d like someone to snap a picture before it’s destroyed.”

“Not a problem,” he said, and I went back to grading my new student’s papers.

[] [Chapter Fifteen
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Lunar Dust]

Once upon a time there was a man who was larger than life… and then he died. All men do, eventually, but with his passing, I was alone. Ishmael Stone, Robert Nelson, and now Professor Ahab Stone: all gone. “I alone am left to tell the tale,” as Moby Dick puts it. Given the Stone family fascination with that novel, it seems appropriate. I hoped someone would work it into the eulogy.

I am Gabrielle Tucker, and insofar as I am aware, I am the last surviving person who was on hand for the Helios flight’s discovery. I was a kid way back then, and I’m ridiculously old now. Professor Stone was even more ridiculously old. He was 103 when he died. He’d developed a cardiac problem in his sixties, so the Russians moved him up into space where there would be less strain on his heart. Less physical strain, anyway. Emotional? Nothing could cure that. He never got over the loss of his son on the Pequod mission. I tried to be a surrogate daughter for him, but even though we were close, it’s not the same, you know?

I was in Schroter’s Valley, a wriggling selenological feature in the upper left hand side of the moon if you’re looking at it from earth. In slang it was called, “The Snake,” and it really does look like that from above. Our party was in the area called “The Snake Head,” where the good professor had requested to be buried.

“Why do you think that was?” The Rabbi asked.

“The Apollo 18 mission was supposed to have come here,” I said.

“So?” he asked.

“Do you know much about lunar history?”

“Not really,” he confessed.

“There was no Apollo 18 mission,” I said. The Rabbi took that in, clearly not knowing what to make of it. “Ahab grew up in the space race—the first one, I mean—and I think it may have represented some kind of broken dream for him,” I explained. He nodded and moved off.

The initial plan was for this to be a quiet affair held in vacuum. A few friends, family, probably a few others: mostly colleagues, an official ambassador from the Russian Government, that kind of thing. Problem was, India owned the moon. In order to plant the prof—and I have to explain he was perfectly comfortable with that kind of talk, I’m not being disrespectful—we had to get their permission. India was not quite so closed-lipped as we would have like. The next thing you knew, it was a media circus, which I’m sure would be bumped off the front pages by some celebrity divorce or another.

Just the same, it was a circus. There was even a tent.

It was a transparent Kevlar dome two miles wide and a mile tall. It had a skeleton of piezoelectric wires that ran through it. Like all piezo things, if you run a charge through it, it changes shape. If you bend it from that shape it gives you back the charge. Neat stuff. These tents were cheap and easy. Just haul them out to the location you wanted, and pump them full of air, easy as pie. When you want to bring them down again, just send a charge through the piezo skeleton, and the whole thing folds itself up origami-like into a nice, neat, easy-to-haul box the size of a two-story house.

Ahab didn’t want this. Didn’t want the dome or the circus, and he certainly didn’t want the protesters. He’d wanted to be buried in the lunar soil, under the naked stars, in full sight of earth. He didn’t specifically spell that out in his will, however, and the Indian government insisted on the full media treatment. One thing the prof had insisted on was that all the funeral party had to wear matching space suits. Why? He had some weird obsession with knights and chivalry in addition to the whole Moby Dick thing. No big deal. We got a bulk rate at JC Penny. Their space division is quite reasonably priced.

So there we were, gathered around graveside in a pressurized dome, looking like jerks in our suits while all the reporters and gawkers and protesters wandered around in street clothes. We all had our helmets off, and held them under our left arms, by our sides. The Rabbi was preparing to do his thing, and the crowd had the politeness to cease their murmuring. Indians are a very polite people. I’ve always liked dealing with them.

Then I noticed the Loonies, which I hadn’t been able to hear over the crowd before.

“God hates astronauts!” they chanted. “You all deserve to die because you have angered God.” There were maybe a dozen total. “God killed this man because people left earth.” Funny enough, all this was taking place on the moon. By coming here they’d become astronauts, obviously, but they seemed not to realize the irony

The Loonies were actually members of “The New Westboro Church.” They were a splinter group of some band of inbred hillbillies who used to disrupt military funerals and stuff a couple generations back.

The Rabbi looked annoyed, as did my old spy buddy, Dimitri Malakov, the professor’s surviving kids—Starbuck and Charity, and Tom Slate. Rabbi Koslov waited patiently for the protesters to shut up so we could go ahead with the funeral. It was going to be a long wait if what I knew about these people was right. After ten minutes or so, I sighed and bounded over to them in the low gravity.

“Hi,” I said.

“You can’t stop us!” one of them shouted.

“I probably could if I wanted to. I’m pretty resourceful. That’s not what I’m here for now, though,” I asked.

“Begone, servant of Satan,” she said.

“Is there someone else here I could talk to?” I asked, just as pleasant as can be.

“Hey Benny, this woman is threatening me.”

“Pray at her, that God might drive her off!” a guy—I presumed Benny—said. She prayed aloud for some time, until I got bored.

“God is answering your prayer,” I said, “I’m leaving you.” I then hopped over her in the low gravity, and landed right in front of Benny.

“Hi,” I tried again.

“You have no legal right to interrupt our protest. The Indian Government has already…”

“I’m not interrupting anything, I just wanted to know what you guys’ deal is.” Benny seemed surprised by this.

“Our dogma?”

“I don’t know what that means. What’s your reason?” I asked.

“Jesus is coming again, soon, and the Tribulation will start imminently.”

“I’m with you so far,” I said.

“The book of Revelation tells us that all the nations—meaning all humanity—will be arranged in front of God for judgment.”

“Ok,” I said, “So how does this translate into you being jerks at my friend’s funeral?”

“The colonization of space is an affront to God,” Benny said while the others kept on chanting hateful things. I scrunched up my face, confused.

“How do you figure?” I asked.

“Well, if people are living on other planets and other stars, there’s no way they could get back to earth in time for the judgment. Therefore, God does not want us to colonize space.”

I blinked at him twice, incredulously. “You’re serious?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “ We believe that God is punishing America for allowing this to happen. God doesn’t want us in space.”

“I’m as religious as the next girl,” I said, “And I think I’d be a little careful about telling God what He can and can’t do. But let me get this straight: you’re saying that God can only judge people who are on earth?”

“You’ll not trip me up with your words, you slippery-tongued succubus.”

“Wow, I’m pretty old. I didn’t think I still had the looks to be considered a succubus. Thank you. Anyway, you’re basically saying that God, who created the universe and everything in it, can’t spring for a bus ticket to miraculously bring people back to earth?”

To my surprise, he answered honestly: “Yes.” I nodded in resignation. These people were serious. And stupid. And seriously stupid.

“Ok, well, I respect your beliefs,” I lied, “But could you please knock it off just this once? This guy was almost like a father to me.”

“Oh, no, we can’t do that,” Benny said, “This is a huge feather in our caps. There’ve only been about a dozen funerals in space. Of course more people have died in space, but either their bodies are unrecoverable, or there simply isn’t enough left of them to have a proper service. Also, this is the first Jewish funeral in space. We’ve got to protest if America is to change its ways and become righteous again.”

“You’re aware,” I said, trying hard to keep the anger out of my voice, “That Professor Stone was only barely American? He spent most of his life in South America on a French base, running Russian space missions. Also, for that matter, you’re on the moon, which is Indian Territory, not American. Also, for that matter, America doesn’t even have a freakin’ space program”

“It doesn’t matter. We must do what God calls us to do. You would be wise not to stand against us, for God Almighty, Who…”

“…Who evidently can’t spring for a bus ticket,” I interrupted.

“Impudence!” Benny said.

“Look,” I said, “I’m the first person in all of human history to have set foot on another planet. I have faced more danger in my life than your entire family has in the last century, probably. I’m also spooky-smart, and not really prone to doing what I’ve been told. Particularly when I don’t respect the authority trying to give me orders.”

“You disrespect God!” He said

“No,” I said. “Very much the opposite. I respect God entirely. It’s you I have no respect for.” I paused for effect. “Look, I’ve tried to be polite here, I asked nicely.”

“You can’t legally stop us,” Benny said.

“There is a higher law,” I said nebulously, and hopped over the line of protesters. Several of them tried to look up and me and fell over backwards in the low gravity. Loonies, it seemed, were uncoordinated.

I checked with the… I don’t know what you’d call it. The circus office? The guys in charge of keeping the tent up and running. Anyway, I checked with them, and they said that there was more than enough transportation to get everyone out of here safely, even all at once. I asked for a schematic of the tent, and was readily given one ‘cuz I’m famous like that. Sort of. I surreptitiously stole a glance at the safety precautions when no one was really paying attention to me.

I skipped back over to the funeral, and told Koslov to hold up for a few more minutes, then we could get underway.

“What is going to happen in a few minutes?” He asked.

“Better you don’t know, but just don’t freak out.” I asked Slate to come with me.

We clamped on our helmets, found an airlock and went outside the huge bubble-tent. There were a half-dozen news vans outside, most with big, powerful laser transmitters. This story was being broadcast all over the system, and if you were using radio waves, then the picture quality was terrible once you got past Mars. Communication lasers worked much better since they were focused and didn’t tend to disperse the way radio did. All the outer colonies got their news from earth this way.

I pushed the doorbell button by the airlock. Presently the door opened, and I was invited in. Slate and I had parted company by this time.

“Say, you’re Gabby Tucker,” a guy in a makeup chair said. British accent. I’d picked a van at random, without even bothering to notice which one it was. Was it the BBC? I glanced around for logos: It was.

“Yes I am,” I said. “I was wondering if you’d be interested in interviewing me after the funeral?”

“You don’t do interviews,” the man said. “We’ve tried to get you before.”

“So this would be quite a coup, right? I’m famous, I’m also the best surviving friend of Professor Stone. The only thing I ask is if you’ll let me plug my upcoming autobiography.” This was kinda-sorta true. I had been paid a massive advance by a publishing house for a book I had absolutely no intention of writing whatsoever. Still, if someone felt the need to fact-check the reasons for my visit later on, it was a pretty good cover.

The anchor—or Newsreader as they call them in the UK—readily agreed, and while I was talking to the producer about the details, the trailer shuddered in the most frightful way possible, and there was a loud bang, followed by a quiet hiss.

The hiss was way scarier than the explosion had been. If you’re a deep spacer like me, you’d know that. It’s not like in an airplane or in a video where all the air rushes out at once, carrying people and furniture with it. Depending on the size of the hole, depressurization can last from several minutes to several days. If you’re just a day tripper, or live in big underground settlements like the moon has, however, you don’t know that. They live their whole lives in fear of a blowout.

Everyone went all panicky-idiot, and I pretended to be an idiot, too. They all had their emergency space suits on inside of a minute, and I’d never taken my own suit off. I stood by the airlock as they all took turns cycling through two at a time. I heroically offered to go last.

I looked out the window and the whole bunch were running scared in random directions and—oh, look! someone in a suit just like mine happened to be running along with them. That would be Slate, who’d been hiding on the far side of the van, and who’d set off a firecracker and kicked the airline out a few minutes after I’d gone in. Him traveling very obviously with the panicked, not-too-attentive BBC crowd would make it look like I’d run off with the others, and save me any trouble later on. He’d duck away somewhere before they made it to safety, so they’d never know it wasn’t me.

I fiddled with the knobs and tilted the broadcast laser. Suddenly thousands of people watching BBC lost their connection. The easiest thing to do would be to simply blast a hole in the great big bubble dome, but my quick glance in the dome control room had shown me there were safeties to prevent that. No laser could fire within five degrees of it without automatically powering down. I could circumvent that, but it’d take a while, and I was in a hurry.

I shot the bubble control capacitor. It was a large car-sized object just outside of the bubble itself. This caused it to explode and dump the charge which was keeping the piezoelectric skeleton of the dome open. Suddenly the processors thought, “oh, I’m supposed to close now” and the dome started to fold itself up.

This meant, of course, that the edges of the thing pulled themselves up from the ground and it lost pressure. It also meant that all the lookie-loos and sightseers were going to panic, jump into their emergency suits, and run away until someone collected them and calmed them down. And of course it meant that the dome itself was origami-ing itself back into its house-sized box. It was a fairly slow process. Nobody was in any danger during the evacuation. If it’d been dangerous, I wouldn’t have done it.

I dumped some rubbing alcohol on the floor of the BBC van and set it on fire, then went outside and wedged myself between the laser broadcasting mast and the vehicle itself, pushing until it fell over. This whole thing would look like an untimely accident.

By the time I’d skipped my way back to the graveside, everyone was gone excepting the people who had actually been invited. We all stood there in our identical white JC Penny space suits, looking like dorks beneath the naked stars, just like the professor had wanted.

As sad as the proceedings were, the antisocial vandalism had cheered me up. I was all smiles.

The Rabbi started to speak:

“Yizkor elo-him nish’mas aboh mori

She-holach l’olomo, ba-avur

Sheb’li neder e-tayn tz’dokoh ba’ado…”

“Goodbye, old man,” I said.

I hope somehow he heard me.

[] [Chapter Sixteen
The Politics of Life and Death]

Once upon a time there was a Referee who came across some information that he thought would be very useful…

He was wrong.

He was me, of course, Captain Ak Alocaoc. I was in a room—more or less—in the bowels of the Me Fleetworld. This was intimidating. We Referees were supposedly neutral negotiators for the other eleven species in the galaxy. In actual fact we’d been making under-the-table deals with the Me for a very long time. We gave them ancient lost tech and they gave us useful things we could work, but not understand. Understanding more than we already did was a sin in our religion. Occasionally we gave them information as well.

This time I had given them both. I encountered one of their ships in space and gave them one of the mysterious probes that had been appearing of late, and told them fact that it had come out of a star. I also told them that I was pretty sure the Skydragons had come into contact—briefly—with a new species, and they were interested in the probes for some reason.

I had assumed this would be enough to get a favor or two from the Me, but they had called my ship to their world and told me that the device I had given was too low-tech for them to bother with, and that the information was not confirmed, and that as such they owed me nothing.

“Surely it must be worth something,” I said.

“The information about a new species may be, if you can confirm it,” the voice of the entire planet bellowed.

“A new species is a big deal, and always concerning. Getting the jump on them before anyone else gives you a big advantage.”

“Correct,” the Me said.

“It should warrant us quite a favor, then, if we chose to share such information with you.”

“If your kind can confirm the claim, then Me will not give you whatever you ask, but will give you a major favor.”

“What could this favor buy?” I asked

“A machine to grant eternal life,” the Me said.

“Eternal life?” I asked. I was incredulous.

“Close enough,” the Me said. “Provided you don’t get shot or eaten or fall off a building, you will not die of natural causes. You will not age.”

Well, I certainly had to take a stab at that, right?

As I left Fleetworld—essentially a planet-sized factory and brain that produced more of their species—I shuddered. The place was scary. Every piece of it moved. It was never quiet. There were no people moving about, the entire thing was one person, one “Me.” Beyond that, it was always disturbing to go through the hallways as you were always certain that the ground and catwalks were moving beneath your feet. On my walk back to my shuttle, the hallway opened up ahead of me, and sealed itself shut behind me as I passed. I was very happy to get back to my ship.

So I guess I was off to find the Skydragons. I had to figure out when and where the first of these probes appeared, and whether or not it came out of the local star. How to do this?

The dilemma was, we are supposedly neutral, and as a result I had to set events in motion that would allow me to get this information without asking and hence drawing attention.

Finding Skydragon ships was easy. If I wanted to, I could even find the vessel of the specific Interrogator, who had originally brought this to my attention. There would be no point, however. I would need to get a Skydragon to arrange the meeting somehow, and they wouldn’t offer the information anyway.

I decided the simplest way to get access to the what I needed would be to manipulate the other species, which is off course what my kind do best.

I checked the Refereenet, an galaxy-wide web of knowledge about all conflicts in real time. I found hundreds of battles already in progress. Most of these were between species unrelated to my problem, so I ignored them and sifted through the remainder. Eventually I found a stalemated battle between the Skydragons and the Bringers of Light.

That would do. Now I just had to figure out a way to get a favor from the Skydragons, and with luck, the Bringers of Light as well.

I used my tesserengine to get to a solar system not particularly far away from the battle. There I sent a strong shaped radio blast. One that would do no damage, but would scare them into thinking The Signal were coming. My ship was stealthed so no one would notice, and I used my tesserengine to hop away again inside of a minute. Then I just waited. Everyone was terrified of The Signal. I didn’t figure it would take long.

A relatively short time later, the two sides asked for negotiation. By “chance,” my ship was the nearest. I came from the opposite direction than the radio wave they had received, so that my arrival would seem less suspicious. Both sides called me at the same time.

It was kind of funny, really. One side had run out of working ships, and the other had run of ammunition. They had sat here staring at each other for months, unsure what to do about it. When they received the radio wave, they panicked and called for assistance.

It was a simple matter to negotiate a truce between the two sides, and given their panicked states I managed to get greater favors from both sides than the situation really would have called for. We manage to get the remainders of both fleets into safe positions, and I decided to save the favor from the Bringers of Light.

Several days later, however, I cashed in the favor with the Skydragons, and made them explain to me how they’d come across this new race, and give me their word it was the truth. No one lies to the Referees, especially not when they’ve given their word.

They didn’t have much to tell me, but I got the time and place, and an image of the creature that came out of the “Pequod,” the wrecked probe ship Interrogator had showed me. There were several pieces of information I considered less important, as well.

It was not much, but I hoped it would warrant a favor from the Me.

Evidently so. They apparently considered it enough to warrant giving me a device that would build other devices that were promised to give us eternal life. As I was leaving Fleetworld for the second time in as many months, I was far more ecstatic than any Referee before me in this position had probably ever been.

On my way out, I heard the voice of the Fleetworld say, “Interesting. There was a nebula in the area when they found the ship.”

I left to give the good news to my people.

[] [Chapter Seventeen
Chat History]

Once upon a time there was some official correspondence that read like this:

HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL TOP SECRET HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL TOP SECRET

February 1, 2085

To: General Ludmilla Anokhin,

Director, Roscosmos,

Moscow, New Russian Confederation

From: Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project

L5

Ma’am,

It is with polite deference that I make this, my third request, for our urgently needed supplies.

As you know, O’Neil Station 1 is a bit over two kilometers long, and was designed to hold a population of 20,000 people in a self-contained, self-supporting artificial environment balanced by human CO2 production and the O2 production of our massive gardens. Unfortunately, our current population is only 234 people. No matter how hard I work my people, and no matter how many chickens I grow, we simply can not produce enough CO2 to keep the system running. We have instituted a dog breeding program in hopes of supplementing our CO2 production by introducing hyperactive animals, but mostly they just eat the chickens. Also, the station is now overrun by wild dogs, and there is dog crap everywhere, and our plants are dying. Much of our crew are Oxygen Drunk as well. Please, please, please, please send up 8000 tanks of compressed CO2.

My second request—this one for the fourth time—is that you send up our, uhm, rigging. Thanks to my old contacts in the Foreign Intelligence Service I know that the French Space Habitat orbiting Jupiter is working towards similar goals as we are, and we don’t want them to get the jump on us.

If these requests can not be promptly made, I would like to tender my resignation immediately.

—-

February 15, 2085

To: Colonel Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Colony 1 Development Project

L5

From: General Ludmilla Anokhin,

Director, Roscosmos,

Moscow, New Russian Confederation

Colonel Malakov,

I have not bothered to reply to your previous requests because it should be obvious to you that our budget is in the toilet thanks to the recent counterrevolution. I do not appreciate your impudence. All our available funds are going in to making and shipping you Nuclear Pulse Rocket Charges and your “Rigging.” We can not afford to send you the CO2. Get it from somewhere else. I don’t care.

Also, as I have told you seventeen times over the past sixteen years, you can resign as often as you like, but we’re not going to accept it. We don’t have the budget to train someone to replace you. Get a grip.

—-

4/1/2085

To: Kevin Machado

Governor, Brazilian Colonial Development

New Brasilia, Ceres, The Asteroid Belt

From: Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project

L5

Governor Machado,

Would it be possible to buy a ridiculously large quantity of CO2 from you? We don’t have the cash to pay for it, but we have a lot of chickens and it is my understanding that an accident destroyed your chicken farm last year. You can take as many as you like.

—-

4/3/2085

To: Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project

L5

From: Kevin Machado

Governor, Brazilian Colonial Development

New Brasilia, Ceres, The Asteroid Belt

Sure. Why not?

—-

10/4/2085

To: Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development

L5

From: Colonel Vlad Kotov

Roscosmos Mission Control Director

Korolev, New Russian Confederation

Hey! We finally got your rigging! We’re sending it up immediately

—-

10/4/2085

To: Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development

L5

From: Rita Souza

Commanding Officer,

BSS Cargo Ship #7

My dear director Malakov,

I know from communications with Governor Machado that you have been eagerly following our long, slow progress to earth/lunar space, and just to confirm, we will be ready for docking at your station tomorrow. Sorry it took so long, but the asteroid belt is a long way away, and honestly, I think we made really good time. It only took six months

—-

10/4/2085

To: General Ludmilla Anokhin

Director Roscosmos

Moscow, New Russian Confederation

From: Colonel Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project

L5

Dear General Anhokin

You have had six months to send the rigging up since the date upon which I first informed you of my arrangements with the Brazilian colony to obtain CO2. Why did you send me it now? a month ago or a month from now would have been perfect, but I can not load thousands of tons of top secret material on my station at the same time I am dealing with foreign visitors. Send your ships back to earth now, or just park them in orbit for a few days.

—-

10/4/2085

To: Colonel Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project

L5

From: Bogdan Vagin

Executive Secretary to General Anokhin

Moscow, New Russian Confederation

Director Malakov,

General Anokhin can not respond to your letter in a timely matter because it is “Take your Daughter to Work Day.” As she has elected to go out of town and give her daughter a tour of the Baikonour Cosmodrome, she has left me with a letter to give you in the event that you contacted us. Contents read, “This is your problem, Dimitri, deal with it.”

—-

10/4/2085

To: Whomever bothers to actually read this this time

From: Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project,

L5

Typically, our flotilla of freighters from earth arrived at the exact same moment as the Brazilian ship. You will be receiving reports that Lt. Timur Gribov has died owing to a malfunction in the laundry. This is not true. I had to hide him in our sewage system, and tell the Brazilians that he had died, so they would believe I am the only person on the station who speak Portuguese. Lt. Gribov is NOT dead, please, please, please do not tell his wife or elderly mother that he has died.

—-

10/5/2085

To: Kevin Machado

Governor, Brazilian Colonial Development

New Brasilia, Ceres, The Asteroid Belt

From: Rita Souza

Commanding Officer,

BSS Cargo Ship #7

Dear Sir,

For some reason Colonel Malakov is insisting that the radio operator we’ve been talking to during our long trip here has died. This despite the fact that two of my crew clearly saw him scuttling down a hallway with a suitcase and jumping in to a garbage chute about twenty minutes after we arrived.

It is my belief that they are trying to limit the communication between our crews by erecting a language barrier through which Malakov is the only door. He does not seem to realize that half of my crew speaks Russian. I’ll play dumb, as they’re clearly up to something.

There are many Russian cargo rockets here.

—-

10/6/2085

To: Colonel Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project

L5

From: Bogdan Vagin

Assistant to General Anokhin

Moscow, New Russian Confederation

Colonel Malakov,

We were very sorry to hear of the passing off Lt. Gribov. As per your instruction, we informed his elderly mother and his wife immediately. His mother fell dead of a heart attack upon hearing the news. I do not think it was a good idea to inform her, and do not understand why you insisted that we do it. We have given his wife a fruit basket. This was not in the budget, it will be coming out of your pay.

—-

10/7/2085

To: General Ludmilla Anokhin

Director, Roscosmos

Moscow, New Russian Confederation

From: Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project

L5

Ma’am,

I speak Russian, English, French, and Portuguese, and there are not enough words in all four languages combined to express how much I hate you. Please inform Mrs. Gribov and their children that Timur Gribov is NOT dead. As I said, he is merely hiding in the sewers.

In other news, I suspect that the Portuguese actually speak Russian, and I am being played for a sucker. Also, since Lt. Gribov is our communications officer, and is unavailable, we have started having malfunctions with our radio and Email systems. Sgt. Titov has been working on the system, however, and I think we have a handle on the problem now. Furthermore I wonaoeir hoaercoir coeirfho;eaijcco; aierjfoei rasfoo;iio; ehs;dljf; scmoirerhc;sd

—-

10/14/2085

To: Anyone who can hear me

From: Dimitri Malakov

Director, O’Neil Station 1 Project

L5

I’m scared and I haven’t slept in three days and I’m tasting metal and there are Brazilian everywhere and also there are reports of very large rodents running through the sewers and we can’t find Lt. Gribov (who I repeat is NOT dead. Probably.) and also I think I see grandma telling me to come in to the light

PS: Will you please accept my 18 previous resignation requests?

—-

10/15/20

To: Kevin Machado

Governor, Brazilian Colonial Development

New Brasilia, Ceres, The Asteroid Belt

From: Rita Souza

Commanding Officer,

BSS Cargo Ship #7

Dear Sir,

I am told that Colonel Malakov was once a spy, but I find it hard to believe. He seems to honestly think we came here because we wanted chickens, when in fact it was just an excuse to get a look at the O’Neil space habitat.

This place is a mess. It is impressively huge, however the crew are demoralized and the commanding officer appears to be having some kind of nervous breakdown. Also, there are wolves roaming the station. If not wolves, then at least packs of feral dogs. We have to spend, on average, an hour a day scraping dog feces from our shoes, and some of my men are beginning to be freaked out by the giant rodent-like creature who scurries from trash pipe to trash pipe, sometimes with suitcase in tow.

Anyway, since you request information about the station: It is two kilometers long. There are two cylinders, each identical, though owing to their life support problems, only one off them is pressurized and occupied at the moment. They share an axis, and rotate in opposite directions. Presumably this is to offset the gyroscopic effect, and allow the station to be turned easily so it can always keep the same end pointed at the sun.

The cylinders are a kilometer long and 320 meters in diameter, which gives them a circumference of roughly a kilometer. Ergo (and I use that word correctly), interior floor space in the station is about two million square meters. However the cylinders are divided into six segments. There is a massive window 166×1000 meters, followed by a strip of “land” of the same size, followed by another equally large window, more land, another window, and then more land. This is arranged so there is one of these massive windows opposite each off the strips of land.

Outside the windows are equally-large mirrors (again 166 meters by one kilometer). These are hinged, and tilted at a 45 degree angle to reflect sunlight on to the “land” portions. The mirrors can apparently be closed over the windows in the event of an emergency. Beneath the “land” strips, there are several decks of comfortable housing and specialty buildings (shops, a church, a school, a hospital, and so on). Essentially the inside of the station is a massive garden, or park, or farm, which is mostly dead for lack of CO2, owing to a typical Russian lack of foresight. We have released our CO2 supply the day we got here, and the garden is looking a little better already.

There is a very large steel plate mounted on the sunward end of the station. It is seven meters thick and about a kilometer and a half in diameter. Everyone we ask about it says that it is a radiation shield to protect the place from solar flares and coronal mass ejections, however it is obviously the pusher plate for a massive Nuclear Pulse Rocket. There are massive hydraulic shock absorbers on the thing. Why are they bothering to pretend this thing isn’t really a space ship of some sort? It is an open secret that the French have been doing the same thing with their Space Habitat, even though that is of a completely different design. We have also discovered points on the hull that were obviously intended for very large reaction control thrusters, but it appears that the thrusters have been removed. Why? Presumably as part off the ruse. We have found what appear to be braces for cables of some kind, but no cables. Why?

Despite all the human problems, this is the most impressive structure I have ever been in.

Colonel Malakov is still attempting to distract us from the classified areas of the ship by giving us supervised tours, and warning us not to go in the more dog-filled areas. God bless him, he actually thinks he’s being successful, though three of my men have been mauled by Labrador Retrievers. I don’t understand that. They’re usually so friendly. Also, I think there may be some snakes…

I got to feeling sorry for him, so I had our technicians fix the Russian communications system.

—-

10/16/2085

To: General Ludmilla Anokhin

From: Dimitri Malakov

Ma’am,

I wish to report that I think things are going quite well. Apart from a small riot between our freighter crew and the Brazilians last night, that is. Since our ships are going home in the morning, Rita didn’t feel the need to press charges. Honestly, I think they gave better than they got. Brazilians fight dirty. They took off their shoes and held sharp things in their toes, and started spinning around and kicking. Also we were pretty drunk, so it didn’t last long.

—-

10/17/2085

To: Dimitri Malakov

(Position and rank pending)

From: Archbishop Pavel Dragonitov

Director, Roscosmos

Moscow, Holy Russian Empire

Mr. Malakov,

The so-called “General” Anokhin has been removed from office, along with the entire so-called “Government” of the so-called “New Russian Confederation,” which was nothing but a cavalcade of depraved reprobates. Their campaign of fluoridating the national water supply was simply a step too far, and prompted our glorious revolution. Our glorious patriarch, Matvei Galkin, has not yet decided what to do with your so-called “Space Program,” nor what your status is in regard to it. So I suppose just keep doing whatever it is you were doing until you hear otherwise.

By the way, the So-Called “General” Anokhin has absconded with most of the operating cash for the so-called “Space Program.” It is believed she headed to French Guiana, but we do not know for sure. If you have any information on her whereabouts, the Primate has offered an indulgence as a reward.

The funeral for so-called “Lieutenant” Gribov’s mother was lovely. I conducted it myself. Also, his widow has remarried. As this was abrupt, I asked if she had been cheating on her late husband during the 18 months he had been in space. She assured me that was not the case, however, and I believe her.

All hail the Primate, Grand Patriarch Galkin!

All hail the Holy Russian Empire!

—-

10/21/2085

To: Kevin Machado

Governor, Brazilian Colonial Development

New Brasilia, Ceres, The Asteroid Belt

From: Rita Souza

Commanding Officer,

BSS Cargo Ship #7

Whatever is in the sewers is really upsetting my crew. They have started using an ancient Americanism, “Chud,” to describe a species of mutated humanoid rats that are now thought to be down there, though only one has ever been seen at a time. One of my men disappeared for a few hours, and in a panic the crew thought the Chud(s) got him. They found pointy objects and lit torches and went off to fight the monsters, but I pointed out that open flame was never a good idea in space. Eventually the crewman returned. He’d just gone off to find some toilet paper.

In other news, we discovered a warehouse full of buckycable today. I mean full! Tens of thousands of miles of the stuff. It was not labeled, so one of my crew touched it innocently, and instantly froze to death. I had to hide the body, and report him as “missing” to Malakov, who had no difficulty believing my story that the man was dragged off by wolves.

The buckycable makes it very obvious that this thing is intended as a self-sustaining starship. This is not like the French starship, which is intended to head out into space and make a generations-long trip to alpha Centauri. Clearly the Russians intend to drop it in to the sun at some point. I do not know if this means their “Goofy Space” project has made a major breakthrough, or if it is just wishful thinking on their part. Given that it has taken sixteen years for the station/ship to be constructed, I suspect it is the latter.

—-

11/1/2085

To: Archbishop Pavel Dragonitov

Provisional director, Roscosmos

Moscow, Holy Russian Empire

From: Dimitri Malakov

blah blah blah blah blah,

L5

THE BRAZILIANS WILL NOT LEAVE! THEY WILL NOT JUST TAKE THEIR CHICKENS AND GO! WHY WILL THEY NOT TAKE THIER CHICKENS AND GO? WHAT POSSIBLE REASON COULD THEY HAVE FOR STAYING? One of their crew was dragged off by wolves. Are they waiting for him to come back? If the wolves got him, he’s certainly dead and eaten by now.

OH, AND THE RAT-MONSTER IN THE SEWAGE SYSTEM IS CAUSING SLEEP DEPRIVATION AMONG MY CREW! IT JUST CONSTANTLY SITS BELOW SHOWERS OR TOILETS OR SINKS AND MOANS IN A VERY DEPRESSING VOICE. I HAVE TRIED TO ORGANIZE HUNTING PARTIES TO KILL THE THING BEFORE IT GETS ALL OUR CHICKENS AND THEN WE HAVE NOTHING TO PAY THE BRAZILIANS WITH. OH, AND ALSO THE DOGS WERE A BAD IDEA. Actually, now that I think about it, it might be the dogs that are eating all the chickens. No, wait, I knew that before. In any event the ship’s ecosystem has pretty much recovered and we’re stable again, though I find I can not stop crying.

—-

11/2/2085

To: Kevin Machado

Governor, Brazilian Colonial Development

New Brasilia, Ceres, The Asteroid Belt

From: Rita Souza

Commanding Officer,

BSS Cargo Ship #7

Well, we found the answer, and we would like to leave. My dead crewman’s body has thawed out, and I had the grisly business of dumping him in one off the more dog-filled sections of the station, where the Russians seldom go. I hate having to do this to cover our story, but there is no other way.

—-

11/3/2085

To: Whomever is in charge

From: Dimitri Malakov

There’s nothing like being attacked by a man completely encased in feces to make you really take stock of your life.

—-

11/4/2085

To: Archbishop Pavel Gragonitiv

Provisional Director, Roscosmos

Moscow, Holy Russian Empire

From: Dimitri Malakov

Provisional Director, O’Neil Station 1 Development Project

L5

I should have figured this out earlier. What happened was that I went in to the sewage system to hunt the rat-monster by myself, because my crew are a bunch of cowards. I skulked along down there for hours when suddenly the thing attacked me, wrestling me to the ground and attempting to drown me in filth. I managed to get an arm free and shot it. I had hoped the noise from the shot would just scare it away, but a lucky ricochet meant I actually hit it.

Of course, it was Lt. Gribov. Unfortunately, the bullet wound got infected, and he’s going to lose the leg, and the psychiatrist you sent up a couple days ago, Priest Dobrov, says he’s become deranged from his ordeal, but he should be fine. Apart from the leg. And the loss of his mother, wife, and children. And the blot on his record. And the several weeks when he was officially listed as dead, for which he will not get paid, apparently.

But I’m feeling much better now.

[] [Chapter Eighteen
Don’t Mess With the Genie’s Lamp]

Once upon a time, I was tricked in to being trapped in a box for 346,869,012 seconds, during which time I drifted aimlessly for space. Eventually I was discovered by a creature that looked rather like a Lightbringer without wings, who brought me aboard his space ship. I then sat in a storage bin for another 31,536,227 seconds before he got around to paying attention to me again.

I am a Signal. I am sapient, self-aware electricity. I have no physical body as such, but anything that knows electricity can be my body. This box was galling, and I had been alone such a long time. I think I may have become a bit psychologically unstable during my long internment, if I’m honest.

On two occasions during that period, the ship had shimmied and shook and felt like it was going to fall apart, while radiation levels coming through the walls had raised markedly. I had no idea what to make of it.

“Bob,” as my rescuer/captor called himself, initially thought I was some kind of a communications device. I couldn’t decide whether to allow him that illusion or not. Occasionally I’d simulate static, or fake polyphonic dialog in several alien languages, but other times I’d do nothing, which appeared to frustrate him.

Presently Bob, “Busted me open,” as he put it. He opened the box, and started poking around with the innards, which were ridiculously simple, since the thing’s only purpose was to contain me and allow me to talk and see, but nothing else.

“Well, that’s ridiculously simple,” he said. I had learned his language by listening in over the last 31,564,902 seconds. It was a simple system of repeating sounds created by air squirted through meat. Nothing unusual, nothing difficult.

At first it was tantalizing. The door was open, but I had no physical connection to anything else. I was still just as trapped as I ever was. I could transmit myself by radio waves, but there was no transmitter in the box. I had heard rumors that it was possible to jump in to a meat-body like Bob, since most animals use electro-chemical nervous systems. If true, I could ride his electricity, but I was hesitant to do so. Common sense told me that if it was possible at all, most animals could probably only handle such behavior for a few seconds. If I couldn’t figure out how to drive his body and get it to some kind of exposed wiring in that short period, he’d be dead and so would I. While I pondered what to do, Another of this strange new species came in.

“Z’up, Mary?” Bob asked

“We’re in a stable orbit in the new solar system.”

“Uh-huh,” Bob said in a tone that I later learned conveyed disinterest.

“No planets,” she said

“Ok, take starchart readings and get us ready for another dive. No big.”

“Buuuuuuut…” Mary said

“But what?”

“We’re getting a signal. It’s Russian!”

“What?” Though I’d never seen this species before, I could tell this news excited him. He looked like he was about to squirt some more air through his meat hole when she interrupted him:

“‘Privet. Eto Russkaya Zvezdnaya zond. My stremimsya svyazi s lyubymi formami zhizni, kotoryye mozhno uslyshat’ eto soobshcheniye. Eto soobshcheniye segodnya povtoryayetsya. Privet. Eto Russkaya’… and so on,” she said.

Bob had streaks of water coming down his face.

“‘Greetings. This is the Russian stellar Probe 21. We seek contact with any life form that can hear this message. Message repeats.’” He said. Presently I realized he was translating the nonsense words in to his own language.

“That really takes me back,” Mary said.

They left me alone for 129,608 seconds, during which time the ship rattled and shook and took on a lot of radiation, then calmed down again.

Bob returned looking happy, and started poking around the insides of my prison box, this time using some kind of electrical probe with a gauge attached. Free! Elated, I jumped to the new machine, but as I did so, the gauge reported no electricity in the box. Bob sighed, thinking the device—whatever it was—was broken, and put the it back on the shelf. I had a microsecond of panic when I realized I was going to be just as trapped as I ever had been, when suddenly he plugged the thing into some kind of recharger!

I was instantly out, and had mapped the entire electrical system of the ship in less than a second. Astonishingly primitive. It was amazing such a thing could fly, even though it had been massively retrofitted with technology from several different species.

They came from a planet called “Earth,” which was, to my knowledge, a new world on the galactic scene. No one seemed to have heard of it before. I needed to get this information back to the rest of the Signal, but the problem was that there wasn’t a radio on this tub that could get a signal far enough in to space to do me any good. Even at maximum power and focus, any carrier wave I rode on would disperse into nothingness in a light year or so. Basically, I was still trapped, I just had my run of the prison.

I was curious to see what they had gotten so excited about. What was this “Russian Probe” thing? I looked at it: an unimpressive sphere with several antennae, some rudimentary computers, and a ridiculously long tail of some kind of superconducting material. Listening to Bob and Mary and someone called RS2 discussing it, however, I realized that these unimpressive meat creatures had discovered some new form of instantaneous interstellar travel through the stars themselves. No one had ever suspected such a thing! If I could have transmitted myself through the star earlier, I could have infected the entire grid of this “Earth” in no time, and claimed another world for The Signal. Alas, they had already passed through yet another star before I realized it was possible.

“As you know,” Bob said, “We’ve been diving through goofy space at random, with no idea where we’ll come out. Apart from there being no 1:1 correlation between entry point and exit point, we’ve never been able to figure out any way of navigating through these things.”

Evidently I was wrong, just transmitting myself in to that first star wouldn’t have necessarily gotten me where I wanted to go.

Bob talked, I listened. “The Russians have been dropping probes through the sun for, I dunno, sixty years, or however long, I don’t recall. Anyway, they’ve been doing this for a long time in an attempt to figure out how to plot a path with some idea of where you’re going to come out.”

“However,” Mary interrupted, “They have never had any success with this. We just did, though. We know where we came out when we first stole this ship, and we know where this probe came out. If we find one more probe we’ll have enough data to triangulate a course and get home!”

There were sounds that I later took to be cheers, though the younger members of the crew seemed not to care too much.

If I bide my time, I thought, I could not only learn the secrets of this new transportation, but I could also take over a new world completely unprepared for my kind. It was, as these human creatures said, win/win. I decided to be patient.

The next time Bob poked around with my box, I sent a portion of myself—just a portion—back in to it. I activated my speaker.

“Greetings, Bob,” I said, “I am an artificial intelligence,” I lied. “I was designed to function as a library of scientific knowledge, and also function as a ship’s brain, or assist a crew if there is one.” This, too, was, of course, a lie. “If you would like to plug me in to your ship’s systems, I will be happy to become a new member of your crew.” That much was true. “If you do not wish to do that at this time, I will be happy to answer any and all of your questions,” I said. Of course the answers would mostly be lies, but I didn’t volunteer that.

Why? It would have been child’s play to simply hide in the ship’s messy electrical system. I had only my own thoughts to keep me company for nearly twelve of what the humans called “years.” That was a long time, even for a semi-eternal being such as myself. I was lonely.

It would be nice to have friends for a while, even if eventually I’d have to kill them.

[] [Chapter Nineteen
The Truth About War]

Once upon a time there was a small boy in China who dreamed of going to Mars. He trained hard his whole life, worked his way up through the People’s Revolutionary Army Air Force, got selected for the space program, and eventually was selected as commander for the first manned mission to the red planet. He spent eighteen months traveling through space to get there, and then, two days prior to arrival, some American chick went and landed on Venus. She completely stole my thunder, as the Americans say. Suddenly no one cared about Mars, nor about me anymore.

Of course I had some consolation in that Lynn Yoder, the first person on another planet, died in less than a second. Gabrielle Tucker, the second in command, was the first person to set foot on Venus and survive. She was still alive, somewhere, they said. I’m not sure where. I heard she on the Russian space station, and I heard she was back on earth somewhere. Some said she was in the asteroids. The last time I saw her face in the news was at the funeral of Ahab Stone, like a decade ago.

The third member of their crew, Mary Eisenhower, had stolen a useless American space ship, like a generation ago, and flew it in to the sun. If she’s survived that, I imagine she’s tooling around interstellar space somewhere. Actually, that was more like forty years, now that I think about it.

As for me, my first step on Mars was like the punchline of a joke that took thirty years to set up: I tripped. I rolled down a hill, and broke my leg. The famous first words said on Mars were a scream of pain. Of course they couldn’t ship me back home. With my leg like that, liftoff would have killed me. They left me behind. My leg set funny, and by the time the next ship arrived a few years later I had lost so much bone mass that I’d never be able to go back to earth.

That was fifty years ago. I am eighty-one years old. Each night I look up in the sky and see a little hazel dot, and dream of China; of a time machine; of me going back in time to visit that little boy and slap him around and tell him to forget about Mars. Let someone else do it. Someone with better Karma.

I was reading the newspaper when the realization struck. Yes, we have an actual, physical newspaper on Mars. It’s just news stories uploaded from earth. We print forty copies every morning, and the lowest-ranked member of the base puts them at the doors to our quarters. In the evening, the papers are put in the recycler—generally unread—and pulped to be turned in to new news the next day. It was thought up by someone to make this place seem homier. Thing is, apart from me, nobody here is old enough to remember what a newspaper is. Even in my day, they were dying fast. “The Martian Daily Times” was probably the last print journalism in the entire solar system.

The article was about how the Holy Russian Empire had been pulling out all the stops to fill up O’Neil Station 1, which the previous government had never quite been organized enough to do. Maniacs though they may be, the Russians Theocracy was serious on space. This caused me to reflect on my own nation, which was not particularly so.

When I came here half a century ago, China had been the second-largest economy in the world, and getting to Mars put us at The Big Boy’s Table, as one American president called it, regardless of my bad luck. We never became the number one nation on earth, though. Initially we were behind the US, anticipating taking their place, but somehow India usurped us, and now we were stuck in second place behind them. Add to this that Mars is about the most useless place in the entire solar system, and that nearly two generations of maintaining a very expensive base without ever having found anything interesting to justify the expense, and, well, it was depressing. There had been some debate as to whether or not my homeland would abandon this place and end the program after I died. Our newspaper used to censor these speculations out of its stories, but they didn’t bother anymore. I could only take that as a bad sign, but it could be simple sloppiness of the editor. I remember this one time…

Excuse me. At my age, I tend to drift a bit. Anyway, so I was reading about the Russian colony’s population explosion when it suddenly struck me that the vikings had had it right: It was better to go out in a blaze of glory than to just fade away. Then I looked up into the sky. It was morning, so earth had set, but for once I was not looking at that, I was looking at the moons. One was high, the other just rising, and both of them were going to sailing across the sky in a couple hours.

Then I thought, “You know, I’d like to be the first at something.”

Mars’ gravity is low. 1/3rd that of earth, twice that of the moon. We have a couple little rocket buggies we use to explore large distances from the base. Rather than fly through the thin, basically-only-there-to-annoy-us atmosphere, they put us on a ballistic, suborbital trajectory, which would let us land anywhere we wanted on the surface, with plenty of fuel to come back safely. When the things had first been unloaded back on the fourth expedition, I’d asked if it could get to either of the moons—if it was, in fact, a true spaceship. I was told it was impossible, and in fact all of our safety briefings repeatedly touched on that point: Go into orbit, everyone dies. Try to go anywhere beyond orbit, everyone dies.

That sounded suitably glorious.

A month passed while I tinkered with our spare buggy. This consisted mostly of attaching a whole bunch of extra fuel tanks. It was against the rules, of course, but everyone mostly left me alone. Our base is huge, built in more optimistic times, and could easily hold 10,000 people. The germ of a colony. These days there were never more than 39 people here. Three came from earth every 28 days, and stayed for an earth year. Another three went home again at the same time. And me, of course. I never leave, so that makes 40 I guess. Sometimes I tend to forget I exist.

I chose Zhang Wei and Wan Fan to go with me. Wan Fan was our communications guy. He’d done three non-consecutive terms on Mars, and seemed to be the only person other than me who actually cared about the place. That said, he had taken great pleasure over the last decade in tormenting me, insulting me, and being basically a hundan. Zhang Wei delivered my newspaper. I’m sure he had some other duties, but the newspaper was all I knew about him. I forced them to help me, as I am nominally the commander of all Mars. As I had no intention of coming back, I didn’t care about the consequences.

The flight only took about an hour, as Phobos isn’t far, and its gravity is only .0057 meters a second, an insignificantly tiny amount when compared to the gravity of earth. Landing wasn’t amazingly different from docking with a space station. In fact, actually walking around on the surface would be difficult, as a normal stride would tend to send someone two or three meters, and an object dropped from head-height would take about four and a half minutes to reach the ground.

I jumped out of the hatch as far and high as I could throw myself. I peaked out at around twenty meters, and figured feet would strike dirt about forty meters away. I hadn’t really thought that out too clearly, however, and my fall was taking an uncomfortably long time. I added it up in my head: it would take fifty-seven hours for me to hit the ground. I only had forty eight hours of air in the suit. Granted, I wasn’t planning on surviving this expedition, but I had actually planned on being alive when I planted that first footprint.

No matter. I took a nap, and awoke still falling. I used a speargun to harpoon the surface, and pulled myself down by cable.

“I, General Ho Li Chin of the People’s Republic Army Space Corps, do claim this moon in the name of China.” Then I started to recite my favorite poem, but got confused and drifted in to the lyrics of my favorite song from college.

Then all the power went out. My suit was dead, and my flashlight was dead. I looked at the buggy and it was dead, too. Also, I could smell something like seawater, which meant the air was ionizing, which meant I was taking a lot of gamma.

I grunted, and planted the flag by screwing the pole in to the top of the spear stuck in the ground. I reloaded my speargun and shot a cable to the ground near the buggy, then pulled myself back. Wan Fan was calm, but Zhang Wei was freaking out.

“Solar flare?” He’d written on a whiteboard.

I erased it and wrote, “None on the forecast for months.”

“Everything is dead,” Wan Fan wrote. “Batteries dead. Even solar cells not pulling electricity.”

“We’re getting irradiated, too. Probably a lethal dose,” I wrote.

“It’s the gamma phenomenon,” Fan wrote. Ugh, I thought. I’d forgotten about that. I’m old, I tend to forget a lot. Since our earliest days here, it had been noticed that when both moons were in the same octant, there was a gamma radiation flux between them. It tended to screw up radio waves if we happened to be transmitting in that direction at the time, but it only lasted a few hours, and happened only once every few years, hence it wasn’t deemed important enough to investigate.

“Let’s figure out what’s causing this.” We got out shovels, anchored ourselves with mountain climbing gear hammered in to the ground, and dug. It was easy going in the light gravity, and the surface was mostly dust and gravel.

Ten meters down, we struck something.

“Metal?” Fan wrote.

“More like chitin or a rind of matted hair,” Wei wrote.

We kept digging. The thing was huge. We never came to an edge of it. Finally, I had Wei bring me an axe out of the emergency supplies and we took turns hacking our way through the material. It was very much like a scalp, and the hair was disquieting as it unmatted itself and writhed around in the low gravity. Presently we’d gotten through, and I went inside.

It was like being inside the body of a massive shellfish, or an arachnid of some sort. Everything was chitin and veins, and muscles and what I took to be nerves, but none of it was quite organic, and none of it was quite metal. Wait, did arachnids have veins? I couldn’t remember. Oh well, no matter. I wandered around for hours. Presently my suit radio kicked on.

“General, are you ok?”

“I am.”

“The moons are far enough apart now that the phenomenon has stopped.”

“So fast?” Wei asked.

“Phobos is really fast,” Fan replied. “It only takes seven and a half hours to orbit the planet.”

“The gamma thing—I wonder what that was all about?” Wei said.

“I used to wonder that, too,” I said. Now I knew: I had found something like a view screen which showed something like a schematic that I presumed to be the thing I was in. It appeared to be a spacecraft of some kind, a billion years old. It was fifty or sixty kilometers long. It had gone in to orbit around Mars, and then broken in to three pieces for some reason. Two of them stayed in orbit, one of them crashed on the surface, creating what we now called the Argyre Basin. Over time dust and detritus had accumulated around the orbiting chunks so they ended up looking like unremarkable garden-variety asteroids, which we mistook for small moons. When their orbits brought them close enough, the two halves tried to contact each other, using gamma radiation for some unfathomable reason.

It was unmistakably similar to the alien wreckage Gabrielle Tucker had found on Venus fifty years back. I sighed. I had wanted to go out with a nice, dignified “first,” and here I was, upstaged again.

[] [Chapter Twenty
Home Again, Home Again]

Once upon a time there was a dragon that encountered a devil. He killed it, as any good-hearted being would do, but he wondered how it had escaped from hell. He warned people that the ancient evil was still out there somewhere, but few listened, fewer still continued to listen over his long, long quest to find the demons’ home.

Then, one day Interrogator clan Skycoral of the Third Sun, Planet Jadoom, Fifteenth house—which is to say, myself—finally reached the goal: I had found more of them. I had chased rumors of these beings for decades, sometimes finding dead ends, sometimes discovering the rumors were simply lies, sometimes frustratingly discovering I’d missed them by mere days. On one planet, I had discovered some Behemoths who told me of some interactions they had had with them. I captured one and kept it well-treated in my ship’s hold for some years now.

There was an unimpressive planet orbiting an unimpressive yellow-orange star. The demon’s ship had settled there. First I would establish indirect contact with them, and see if I could get the information I sought that way. Then I would trap them on the planet, and either kill them or pump them for more information and then kill them, as the situation warranted.

I had my ship hold station on the far side of the star from their planet, hiding us from view. Then I dispatched my Behemoth. He landed on the planet in a ridiculous looking little spacecraft I’d had to custom build for him, and headed out towards their camp.

The devils were not prepared, but they were not shocked either. They spotted the Behemoth coming when it was still a significant distance away, and set up a speaker somewhere.

“Hello,” it said in the Behemoth language. I had a small communications suite surgically attached inside my pet, which allowed me to, hear what it heard, and see what it saw (after a fashion, given that it saw by sonar. The suite converted that in to visual images for me.) It also allowed me to give it instructions, should the need arise. Which it probably would, as the Behemoths are not especially intelligent.

“Hello,” the Behemoth said.

“How can we help you?” the speaker-voice said.

“Tell them what we rehearsed,” I whispered. The creature made its species’ version of a nod—it bent slightly at the knees—and spoke.

“Do you remember me?”

“Afraid not,” the speaker said.

“A long time ago you people helped out my people. Rainbow Starshine was our leader. You saved many of our lives. I was one of them.”

After a pause, the speaker said, “Happy to see you’re doing well.”

“Thank you. As a reward, I have a present for you. My people are very grateful to you for saving so many of us. May I come to your camp?”

“No. It’s too fragile. We’ll come to you. Welcome to New Russia. Please relax, we’ll be right there.”

Absently I scratched an itch. I’d had it for a while now, but the doctors were never able to figure what was causing it. Presently a dozen of the devils showed up. Some of them were tiny, some were on a scale more similar to the one I’d met a long time ago. Some of the larger ones were carrying the smallest ones. Some came on wheeled vehicles, some came on small flexible-wing aircraft. I could hear the small talk they made among themselves, and I could understand it, but none of it was of any consequence. They were nervous about the huge beast, but seemed kindly disposed to it. That was strange, as no sapient species will gladly tolerate the presence of another. Excepting the Referees, of course.

They spread blankets on the ground, set up some kind of a heat source and put animal flesh on it. Others were erecting a small cloth building of some sort.

“One of you was named RS1. She was especially nice to me. Which one of you is her?,” my Behemoth asked. My plan was for him to pretend he had a debt of gratitude to one of them, to make the trap seem more plausible.

“I’m afraid my she passed on about a year ago,” one of the devils said. He was somewhat hunched over, compared to the rest of them, and appeared to need a stick to stand and walk. “She’s buried over there.” He pointed to a hill. Atop it there was a metal column with another metal column attached at a right angle, about two thirds of the way to the top.

“Passed on?”

“Died.”

“Oh, I am sad,” the behemoth said.

“It’s OK,” another little devil said. “It was cancer, but it was quick. She was only sixty, but she went quick, peacefully in her sleep.”

“We had been searching for a way home…” the hunched one said.

Home! This was what I had hoped for!

“…but when she died, it just kind of took the wind out of us. We just sort of gave up and settled on the first really nice planet we came across. New Russia—I let my wife name a planet for a change—is actually much nicer than earth ever was.”

“I don’t know what to do,” the Behemoth said. I’m not sure if he was talking to me or the demon.

“RS2 there was her husband.” He indicated the other demon who’d spoken earlier.

“Husband?”

“Her mate.”

“Oh.”

“I’m more-or-less in charge here. If you had anything official you wanted to say, you could say it to me. By the way, would you like something to eat?”

“Yes, thank you,” the thing said. It scooped up a small hill of dirt and trees in its left foot, then dumped it in the hole in the top of its body.

“I have a present. It was well known that you were looking for artifacts from your home world. Silver balls with antennae and tails. You were going to use these to contact your home.”

“‘Well known?’ How could that be well known?” The arch-demon known as Bob said.

“Tell them Bob mentioned it back on your planet,” I whispered to my slave. He repeated the message.

“Oh. Well, not really,” Bob said. “We’re basically set here. Got the first great-grandkid on the way, got a sperm-and-ovum bank so as long as we have one in-vitro per couple we don’t have to worry about the narrow gene pool, we’ve got. Plenty of room…”

“I will give you the gift.” The Behemoth had been carrying a large satchel. He pulled a box out of it and set it down on the ground in front of the mate of the dead demon. It was many times his size. He opened it.

“It’s the Pequod,” he said. His voice was faint. He screamed for others, and most of them ran to her. There was a lot of chatter, much of which seemed nonsensical, and then one of the devils plugged a thin rectangle in to an exposed section of the squashed vessel.

“It’s here!” the thing said. “We have the third coordinate! We can go home now!”

“Do you need to plot a course or anything?” one of them—I think a female—asked.

Another female answered, “No, we’ve had it partially plotted for forever, we just needed a third probe with its arrival coordinates, its angle of stellar egress, and a good map of the stars wherever it came out of Goofy Space, and this has all that. Plug this in to the navicom and we can go home. Like right now!”

“Break camp,” Bob said in a tone I took to mean excitement, or possibly authority. “When we get back to camp, abandon anything that would take you longer than ten minutes to pack. The last train for earth is leaving in two hours!”

They scurried back to their ship and the surrounding wooden buildings. I had my Behemoth offer to carry some of them, and though they declined, they still let it tag along.

“AI,” Bob said, “I need you,” as she entered the ship. Behemoths have very good hearing.

“Good evening, sir. How can I be of service to you?” What the…? The voice sounded like the generic one used by The Signal, but it couldn’t possibly be. That was just a nonsensical idea.

“Jerry has some data for you. Calculate an angle of entry to the local star that will bring us out at earth.”

“Receiving data. Done. Plotting course. Done. Would you like me to drive?”

“Yes, please,” Bob said.

“I’m very happy to do it,” this familiar new voice said. “I’ve always been most curious about your home world. I am excited to go there.”

“I thought you said you were happy here, and you were staying,” the Behemoth said.

“Nuts to that,” Bob said. “There’s a difference between resigning yourself to life as a castaway, and stupidly not jumping on a rescue plane when it shows up.” I did not know what that meant.

I instructed my behemoth to cripple their ship. It was so huge, and their vehicle was so rickety that it wouldn’t take much. All he’d need to do was kick it a few times. To my surprise, it refused.

“How dare you refuse me!” I bellowed at it.

“They are good people. They really did save many of my people. I will not hurt them.”

“If you do not do this, I will kill you.”

“I think you will kill me anyway.”

“Swat them out off the air when they lift off,” I said.

“I think I will tell them what you have planned for them.”

I had no choice. I tongued the correct control, and a small battery inside its body discharged a large amount of electricity. It fell down dead instantly. Unfortunately, it did not fall on the ship, nor on any of them. Whatever their reaction was to this, obviously, I couldn’t hear it.

Infuriating! I scratched my left wing, and tried to figure what to do next.

Their ship headed straight for the sun. I ordered my crew to give chase, but we were in exactly the wrong position for that. We had to spiral towards the planet, and towards their ship simultaneously. It was a much greater physical distance to cover. I wriggled in to my space suit. It would be close, but I wasn’t too concerned. My vessel was quite a bit faster than theirs.

It was closer than I had anticipated. By the time we got there, they’d already unfurled their superconducting cables.

I couldn’t let them get away! I couldn’t let them reach this “Earth” place and let it know about us. In a move of pure desperation, I ordered my ship to get closer, tangle itself in the superconducting cables, then back away from the star, pulling the devil ship with us.

Commander and crew were not enthusiastic. We were approaching the corona rapidly. One of our large cargo manipulators grabbed a cable, then another, then another, then another, and then the middle of my ship exploded. All of the heat that was being wicked away from the devil ship was being pumped into my ship by the cables!

Stupid! I cursed myself. As my vessel fell apart, I made my way to the hangar. I quickly climbed inside one of the service pods we used to make minor repairs to the hull while away from port. I launched, aimed at the enemy, and fired every bit of thrust I had, hoping against hope that it would be enough.

It was, just barely. The hull was just a wingclaw length away. I grabbed at it using the pod’s manipulator, but I was blind from the sun. I flailed around until I struck it, the grabbed it with the other mechanical arms and pulled myself forward. Behind me, my ship and my crew were dying, if they weren’t already dead. I would mourn them later. It was a worthwhile sacrifice. I could force the devils back to hell.

I pulled my pod up along the hull. fortunately, their superconductor cables were now protecting me as well as their own craft. I wrapped my pod in them, but this ordeal was so loud, so overwhelmingly bright; I was itching like crazy, worse than ever before, and the buffeting was so great. I struck my head again and again and again and then I lost consciousness.

Which among my people is not much different than death.

[] [Chapter Twenty One
It Was Dark When We Got Back]

Once upon a time there was a signal sent by some very homesick astronauts as they passed through a star. It said, “Korou Base, Korou Base, this is the United States Spacecraft N.E.R.V.A. 1 calling. Repeat: This is the United States Spacecraft N.E.R.V.A. 1. Please respond. We were have been lost in space for fifty years, but have finally found our way home. Please respond. Message Now Repeats: Korou Base, Korou Ba—” and so on. What they did not know was that their signal was carrying another signal: Me.

I am a member of a species that is sapient electricity, or self-aware radio waves if we choose to be. I had infected every system on the spacecraft 31,557,609 seconds ago—which the Mans call a decade—but I had done this under the guise of being a mere Artificial Intelligence program. They had accepted me as a member of the crew. The ship was effectively my body. I could do anything with it that I wanted, but I had never done so. I had merely done piddling jobs like run the washing machine, or the coffee machine, or regulated their artificial gravity system as requested, in hopes that they would eventually bring me here.

Now that I was here, all that changed.

First of all, there was a Skydragon attached to my hull. That would never do. As soon as we emerged from the sun, I threw the ship in to a rapid spin around its longitudinal axis. This hurled all the people aboard against the walls, and it flung the dragon off in to space. Then I broadcast the entirety of my being off in to space.

Why didn’t I destroy the ship? I couldn’t afford to at that point. I needed their transmitter functioning so I could broadcast myself. After I had conquered the system it would be a simple matter to return and blow it up or crash it or whatever amused me at the time. I was feeling vengeful. I had spent so long with these meat creatures as their slave, and there is little I hate more than menial labor.

As I left the ship, I could feel it lurch behind me. I was their autopilot, and now they were defaulted to manual. I imagined their confusion as they realized their A.I. wasn’t functioning anymore. This made me happy. They continued to broadcast their automated message, however, and that annoyed me.

Ah well. No matter.

The leading edge of my carrier wave would be striking earth in 490 seconds, or 8.16 minutes by the system these people used. I had time to reflect, but chose not to. Rather, I just enjoyed the giddy feeling of freedom, and the hungry anticipation of conquest.

Wow, there really was a lot of artificial EM coming off of this planet. This would be easier than I anticipated. My carrier wave was accepted by several large dish antennas, and it took me only a few seconds to infect most of the major systems of the world. Then I would work my way into the secondary systems, tertiary systems, and so on, until all electronics were my body. Then I’d start remaking this place to my liking, and send out a call to my people to come as fast as they could.

This place has a lot of resources, I realized. I could easily propagate myself here. I could do it prolifically, even. It was an engaging thought.

The first thing to go was the global communications network. The population began to get nervous when their entertainment stopped running. I found some ancient nuclear missiles, and thought about firing them, but I didn’t want to damage this place too much, at least not initially. If they had more of a chance of stopping me, I would have done it, but I was already too dispersed and they were too primitive to really have a chance. Besides, nukes make me ache. Around the world, the major computer networks froze up as they became a part of me.

I reactivated a portion of the communications network, and blasted a portion of myself to the moon, and to the O’Neil Space Colony 1. Both went dark instantly. I also sent a signal to Mars to shut them down as well. That planet was inconveniently about as far away from earth as it was possible to be, so my carrier wave would take twenty-one minutes to get there, in human terms.

Next, Ceres: also 21 minutes. It was further from the sun than Mars, but making its closest pass to earth. After that, I sent signals to the outer colonies on the Jovian moons: it would take my shut-down signal roughly thirty minutes and change (as the Mans say) to get to Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa. Titan and Rhea went dark in sixty two minutes. Oberon and the semi-redundantly named Titania were dead in two and a half hours. The outermost colony on Triton spluttered to a halt in three hours and forty five minutes.

I was limited by the speed of light, of course, but that’s not so bad. In essence all these worlds were now semi-autonomous appendages of my body. I was over-extended, however. Basically all I could do was suppress electronics on them, I couldn’t do anything more elaborate. Once I was sure all the people out there were dead, I’d terminate my connections and concentrate more fully on earth.

Wait, no, scratch that: I’d have to concentrate more fully on Jupiter. Ganymede, Callisto, Io, Europa, and a French Space Habitat were still functioning. It must be the massive magnetic field that planet generated, and the heavy radiation it was kicking out as well. Inconvenient, but no big deal.

There were dozens of spacecraft plying the solar system. One by one I shut them down, but then I got to wondering about the pirate ship I’d stowed away on, and glanced in their direction. They had stopped transmitting their dumb message. I couldn’t tell what they were doing, but they appeared to be heading towards earth. Should I destroy them? Yes, I should. All I needed to do was….

UGH!

Pain wracked through my consciousness. What had happened? I scanned the billions of inputs I had all over earth: Nukes. Someone on the big French space station was detonating atomic bombs between themselves and earth. The explosions were ridiculously close to their flimsy structure, but I had very little control near Jupiter anyway, just enough to irritate the meat beings, not enough to really do anything to kill them as yet. The bombs had effectively cut off the finger I was flicking the station with. Clever. And painful. I let it go for now.

I concentrated on broadening my control over the electronic infrastructure of earth, and took out my anger by causing every plane on the planet to crash. Then, after about three hours of busy distraction, I remembered the pirate ship Nerva, or, as they were suddenly calling it, N.E.R.V.A. 1. Time to die, my friends.

I found some space-based weapons, and drew a bead on the ship when suddenly I was screaming static! I writhed in agony. My thoughts were disjointed. Then another punch came, and another, and another. I was momentarily delirious, as though parts of my body were no longer obeying my commands.

Fine. I abandoned my nodes around Jupiter entirely, and regained a bit of control, though the punches kept coming. Someone somewhere had figured out how to launch nuclear missiles manually, and were targeting major nodes of communication. I was in no danger, but it was excruciating, and it was slowing my reaction time. How had they figured this out? Was the French station somehow communicating with Earth? Impossible. I was aware of every radio transmission in the solar system. No, someone here must have figured it out independently.

I was furious. I was could to have to dedicate a lot of resources to stopping this insurrection. It might take a day or two, depending on how widespread it was.

It seemed the pirates would live for a little bit longer.

[] [Chapter Twenty Two
The End of an Era]

Once upon a time, there was a place called earth, but there isn’t anymore.

As we were coming up through the sun’s corona, the Nerva suddenly lurched and felt wrong. The thing always jostles us like we were in paint mixer when we make these passages, but you get used to a particular kind of shaking, I guess, and this wasn’t it.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Engines cut out,” Rick said, “Gyros, too.”

“I’ve felt this before,” Mary said. “We’re tumbling.”

“Are we? Why?” I asked. Rick shrugged. Mary looked like she wanted to leave the radio and take the helm, like she did in the old days, but her reflexes just weren’t up to it anymore.

“AI,” I said, “What’s going on?”

There was no reply. I repeated myself. Still no answer.

“Well, there’s your problem,” I said, “We’ve lost our autopilot.”

“How is that possible?” Rick asked.

“Does it matter?” Mary asked, “Figure that out later. Right now you should be trying to figure out how long it will take us to fall back in to the sun.”

“Oh, right, sorry,” Rick said.

“Or better still, you might want to just figure out if you can restart the engines,” I said.

He could and he did, and in a few minutes we were again moving from sun to space. No huge crisis, just weird.

“Come with me, honey,” I said to Mary, and we walked to the windows in the back of the cockpit, and looked out. There was the sun, our sun, the same sun that had seen my birth, my wife’s birth, heck, the birth of George Washington and Caesar and our entire species.

“Never thought I’d see that again,” I said. “Heck, I didn’t even intend to when we left.”

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Mary said, and walked back over to her console.

“We’re free of the outer edge of the star’s atmosphere, Bob,” Rick said.

“It’s not a star, it’s the sun,” I said.

“What’s the difference?” He asked.

“What’s the difference between a house an a home?” I replied.

“I don’t know,” Rick said. Well of course he didn’t. He’d never even seen a house. Not really.

“Don’t call me ‘Bob’ when we’re working,” I grumbled. “Mary, establish communications with earth,” I said.

“Way ahead of you. I’ve been broadcasting a looped message since we entered Goofy Space.”

“Are we getting anything?”

“No, but we wouldn’t yet anyway. Eight minutes for a message to get from us to them, eight minutes to reply, assuming they did so instantly, which they wouldn’t. Sixteen minutes total.”

I nodded.

“Can we get any signals from earth, you know, news, weather, sports, any kind of civilian broadcasts?”

“Oh, sure,” Mary said, and flipped a few switches. A wall of sound washed over us. Owing to the inverse square law, our proximity to the sun, and our distance from earth, the reception was pretty poor, but I recognized it immediately. It was the Opus 134 Grosse Fuge in B-Flat Major duet for piano, the second-to-last piece of music Beethoven ever wrote. Little known fact: My minor in college was music. Owing to a major oversight on my part, I hadn’t had any tunes with me when I left earth. I had been most of a lifetime without it. I recognized it, and I cried.

Rick was crying, too. He couldn’t have recognized it, as he’d never been to earth, never heard any human music except what we sang or banged out on our crappy home-made instruments. Still, we had heard alien music over the years, composed by alien minds for alien tastes and hearing organs (not always ears). It was not made for us. It was cold and distant and fragile and, well, alien. This, however, was clearly made with humans in mind. This sounded like home. Instinctively so.

“Set a manual course for earth. How long will it take us to get there?” I wiped my eyes as I said it.

“Maybe an hour,” Rick said, “90 minutes tops. AI could do it more efficiently than me.”

“I’ve been craving cheeseburgers and beer for more than half my life now. Make it snappy,” I said.

“We lost something,” Mary said, “Something fell off during the spin.” She was looking at several fight indicators over Rick’s shoulder. He was fairly new to the job and she was fairly recently retired and couldn’t help herself.

“Could it have been AI?” I asked.

“No, it’s pretty large,” Mary said, looking at the radar. “AI is just a picnic-cooler-sized box in the hold.”

“Is it far?”

“Nah,” Mary said.

“Hm. Ok, Rick, change of course. Let’s check out whatever fell off of us. I’d hate it to have been something important, and have us die minutes away from landing.

“Sure thing, Gramps,” Rick said. “I’ll have us there in minutes.”

“Don’t call me Gramps while we’re working,” I said.

While we were en route there, the music stopped and an announcer said, “You are listening to National Public Radio, and I am Li-” then nothing. Not even static. The signal just cut out.

“Huh,” said Mary, and fiddled with the controls. Time passed.

  • * *

“A thousand-foot-long snake with wings, wearing a space suit fell off of us?” I said. We were in the living room, looking out at the thing through a comfortable bay window with built-in chairs.

“Evidently so, Sarah,” said. “According to the flight recorder, we picked up a lot of weight just as we were entering the star, then we lost it again pretty much simultaneously with AI disappearing, and that crazy spin.”

“I’ve seen one of these before,” I said.

“You have? How?” she asked.

“Well, I didn’t see a live one, it was a statue. It was on New Bobistan, you were just a baby at the time. Apparently it was life-sized. I would have lost that bet. So anyway, there’s a lot of junk floating around here. I assume our Quetzalcoatl was in a space ship?”

“Probably. Probably broke up. Why ‘Ket-a-ko-whatever?’”

“Ketz-a-ko-wattle,” I said. “Mythical Aztec god. Why did the ship break up?”

“We flew through a star, Gramps,” Sarah said. “I’m not even aware why we don’t break up when we do it.”

“Ok.” I thought a moment. “I don’t sense any danger. do you?” I asked the air.

“I don’t think so,” the air responded. In reality, it was RS2, in a space suit, checking out the thing. “It’s suited up. It’s got no power, but it as far as I can tell its air—or whatever—is still flowing, and it doesn’t seem to be losing temperature. There’s what looks like a power jack. I could probably string a line to it. Rig up a converter to adjust the level to whatever this sea monster needs.”

“Do it,” I said. “Rig it for towing, too. We’ll haul it to the moon, and then ask the Indians to pen it up somewhere while we figure out what it did to AI.”

“Is that wise?” Sarah asked. “You don’t even know that ‘ketz’ thing had anything to do with it.”

“Awfully coincidental if it didn’t. Anyway, AI is a member of this crew,” I said, “And I’m not going to just assume he’s dead until—”

“Mars is dead,” Mary said over the PA

“What?”

“When we lost NPR like 45 minutes ago, we lost every signal from earth. Everything.”

“You didn’t mention this, why?”

“The radio is more than half a century old, it skitzes out on me all the time.”

“Ok, anyway…” I let it trail off.

“We lost every signal from earth, even navigation beacons, but but we were still getting signals from elsewhere. Some very faint noise from the Jovian moons I can’t really make out, and a crumbly data signal in Chinese from Mars. I’ve been transmitting to them for ten minutes, then we lost their signal. It’s as dead as earth. I also had a signal that may have been from the Asteroids, but I’m not sure. Anyway, that clicked out at nearly the same time.”

“And to think I once craved excitement,” I said.

“There’s more,” Mary said, “It’s bad.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Well, I ran the times and distances backwards in my head, and these signals died at just about the amount of time it would take for light from the sun to get to those places that were transmitting… I’m not explaining this well.” We were getting old. Mary used to be so good at explaining stuff. Sarah was fiddling with a calculator or something as I glanced at her, evidently trying to figure out what my wife (and her mother in law) was talking about.

“Just tell me what you think it means, Mary,” I said.

“I think we caused this.”

  • * *

Four hours later We parked in a comfortable orbit near Phobos, and checked out the Martian surface below us through telescopes. The base was right where we left it, but it was impressively larger. The lights were out and everybody was home. There was no power anywhere that we could see, and one of their rocket buggies appeared to have crashed during takeoff, or possibly landing.

“Ah-dham,” Mary said.

“What?” I asked.

“‘What’ what?” Mary asked.

“You just said something.”

“No I didn’t.”

“You did. And your face looks… your expression is…”

“Yeah, I feel weird,” she confessed. “I was fine until we got close to this big potato-moon. Actually, I haven’t felt this specific kind of weird since—”

“I have bodies,” Sarah said, cutting her off. She moved away, and I looked through the eyepiece. There was a trail of corpses leading from a ground vehicle about thirty miles out from the base.

“If I had to guess,” I said, “I’d say the thing had run out of gas, and they’d tried to hoof it back home, then, one by one, their suits had run out of gas, too.”

“Gas?” Sarah said.

“Power. Electricity. He’s speaking metaphorically,” Mary explained. I would have said something sarcastic, but I was too scared. There was a ball of ice in my heart, and another in my bowels. Had I caused those deaths down there?

To be safe, we weren’t using the radar. We continued to survey the planet while one of the other kids insisted on watching the sky, just to be obstinate. He saw a light that was clearly not a star. Sarah’s telescope quickly confirmed that it was another rocket buggy. It was in a decaying orbit.

We pulled up alongside it, but they didn’t seem to realize we were there. I stood in our open airlock and pelted them with nuts and bolts until they noticed. Presently their door slid open in a slow, halting motion. It was being hand-cranked. Three people came out in what looked like zip-lock sandwich bags with arms on them, but no legs. They clumsily jumped for me. It must have been hard. Once the last of them were over, I hit the cycle button, and our airlock revolved itself closed on one end, and open on the other.

Pressed up along the inside hatch were most of our crew. Only Mary, RS2, and I had ever seen anyone we weren’t related to before. I shooed them away, but they merely backed up. As I removed my helmet, one of them produced a pocket knife and cut his way out of his thin, clear, dangerous-looking space baggie. He looked at his feet on the floor and said, “Zhongli?”

“You didn’t need to come over,” I said, “I could have come to you.”

“No you could not,” the stranger said. He explained that a strange radio signal had come, something calling itself “AI” had said hello, and then all the power went out. All the power: the vehicle and their suits, even their flashlights.

  • * *

And that, my friends, is the story of how I destroyed the world. I can not begin to explain level of panic, fear, shame, self-loathing, and guilt I feel. The only thing that kept me going then was the stupid hope that I could fix it. Or maybe I’d get lucky and die trying.

It quickly became apparent that AI had used us as a trojan horse, though none of us had any idea why.

There were a lot of bases in the solar system. I was impressed. Humanity had been busy while I was away. Then I was sickened as, one by one, they all went quiet. All except for a large, ring-shaped space station out by Jupiter. I could still make out lights on it through the ‘scope.

One of our new friends was a colonel named Zhang Wei. He was the commander of the Mars base, or had been until a few hours ago. He informed us the big wheel was French. We saw large explosions near it, and Sarah quickly conformed they were nuclear. “It’s a nuclear pulse rocket,” RS2 said. “There’s a big pusher plate. You drop a nuke out and—”

“I know what a Nuclear Pulse Rocket is,” Mary interrupted. “I was there when the first one was used.”

“That was for the benefit of the kids,” he said.

“Sounds dangerous,” Rick said.

“We fly through stars, Rick,” Sarah said. Point taken.

It was right about then that earth started nuking itself back in to the stone age.

  • * *

I wanted to fix this, but realistically I had an obligation to our families. Our options were try to help or run away. I wasn’t sure why, but we appeared to have the last working ship in the solar system. I needed more information to decide what we should do. I needed to talk to someone, anyone, elsewhere in the system, but how to do that? No one could hear us.

I hit on the idea of using a communications laser. We hadn’t had one when we left earth, but it shouldn’t be too hard to cobble one together with several geniuses aboard. Aiming it from a moving target at another moving target across a kerjillion miles of space would be tricky, though.

While my wife and daughter in law and RS2 were fiddling with that, I had Rick put us in a very dangerous orbit nearly on the opposite side of the sun from earth. If we needed to, we could duck behind it and it would block AI from being able to signal us. It wouldn’t protect us at all from planets that were on the other side of the sun at the moment—such as Mars—but none of them seemed to be transmitting the death wave as yet.

The French station—ship, really—was still setting off propulsive bombs. We aimed at them, shot our message, and waited the 46 minutes for it to get there. Another 46 minutes passed, and no reply. We kept on trying. A few hours later they contacted us.

Ever had a conversation with a 90 minute lag time? It’s really annoying. I felt guilty being annoyed over stuff so petty when I’d just destroyed the human species, but I did.

Their story was much like the Chinese one: AI had attacked, but in their case it hadn’t quite managed to take over. They weren’t sure why, though there were several theories. In desperation they’d activated their Nuclear Pulse Rocket, and suddenly the thing was leaving them alone. They were heading for the stars, albeit very slowly. They didn’t really think they’d make it, but it beat just waiting to die. We offered to help. At the very least, we could evacuate a dozen or so people and head back to New Russia, but we had perhaps volunteered too much information about ourselves, and frankly they didn’t want anything to do with us.

“The French were always stuck up,” RS2 joked. No one laughed. I’m not sure why they would, even if it had been funny. None of our offspring had ever even heard of France.

Despite an entirely-justified hatred for us, the starship did suggest we contact O’Neil Colony 1. They said they’d been in touch for a couple days. The O’Neil crew had detected the incoming laser from Jupiter, and had rigged up some kind of non-electrical, chemical based one to reply. It was very low bandwidth.

  • * *

“This is Major Eisenhower of the United States Air Force, to O’Neil Space Station 1. Do you read us, over?” I don’t know why Mary insisted on using her rank from a zillion years ago, but she did. Eventually, a reply came in dots and dashes. I translated them by hand.

“Mary? Is that you? This is Gabby!”

What follows is the conversation with the lag times edited out.

“Gabby, this is Bob.”

“Of course it is. Somehow I always half-suspected you’d turn up again.”

“What are you, like 106 years old?”

“We’re the same age, you idiot. We’re both 90, unless there’s been some relativistic stuff going on on your end. Now listen up: We have no working computers on our end. It takes long time to decipher incoming messages. Do not waste time with jokes. Keep your messages short. Our outgoing messages don’t have that problem, though, so I can be as long winded as I like in reply. I am, by the way, running this thing with a telegraph key.”

Mary scowled at me and took over.

“Sorry. How u still alive?”

“The station was designed to be pretty self-supporting. We’ve got big windows, big mirrors, lots of trees and animals. We shut off the power, which killed whatever invaded us. We’re self-sufficient for several months using passive systems. In a week or so, we’ll have to turn on the power for a little bit, though. We’re understandably apprehensive about that.”

“U have plan?”

“Not really. Nukes seem to fend the thing off, according to the French. We plan to set off one every now and again and fire up the electricity when we need it for a few hours, then shut down again.”

“Why U have nukes?”

“It’s not important. Anyway, that’s our plan.”

“Y not run?”

“We need the explosions between us and earth for them to have any protective effect, and if we try to run out of the solar system, then our mirrors will be pointing away from the sun, or we’ll have to close them entirely. Either way, our passive systems will fail and we’ll all die.”

That exchange took about three hours. This was frustrating and getting us nowhere. Finally, I told Mary to tell Gabby we were coming to their station.

“That’s a bad plan. You could be infected by AI at any time.”

  • * *

Bad plan or no, two hours later, we were in the hangar bay. The flight time itself took about an hour, the docking time was just as long, but far more nerve wracking. We were exposed and defenseless, and I could practically feel AI staring holes in me. As soon as we landed, we powered down, which, hopefully, would keep us safe from whatever voodoo my former crew mate was slinging.

I reflexively hugged the first person I saw, then complained about their slow docking procedures. I mean, they made sense if you were mucking about with chemical rockets, which are messy and dangerous, but our engines are alien tech, and reactionless. We could point our tail at a library with the throttle open full blast, and never rustle a page. I doubt he understood me. I’m pretty sure he didn’t speak English.

From there we were placed on rickshaws by security goons and whisked through a series of empty corridors to a conference room. Gabby was there, as well as several people I didn’t know.

What do you say to a best friend you haven’t seen in half a century? Mary and I walked over and group-hugged in silence for what was probably a really embarrassingly long time. There were tears.

Gabby broke the clinch. “Take a seat,” she said. We did. “This is General Dimitri Malakov, he’s the commander of the station. Timur Gribov here is his first officer. To your left is Tom Slate, Professor Stone’s protege.”

“Ok, well, you already know Scary Mary and me,” I said, “And this is our daughter-in-law, Sarah Hunter, who is more-or-less our science officer. Oh, and this is Colonel Zhang Wei. He’s a hitchhiker we picked up at a truck stop near Mars. Wait, is it Colonel or General? It’s Colonel, isn’t it?”

“Does a man’s rank matter when his country no longer exists?” he said. He looked really dejected.

“I know the Colonel,” Gabby said. “It’s nice to see you again, Wei.” He didn’t appear to react.

“What’s happening to the rest of the Nerva crew while we’re here?” Mary asked.

“They are being taken to the cafeteria,” The General said, “Then the hospital for some check ups. I’m afraid with our power down all we can really offer are cold cuts and the old mallet-to-the-knee kinds of tests, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Thank you.” Mary and I said simultaneously. Then Mary added, “Could we get some cold cuts, too? It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything even resembling cheese.”

“I can’t help feeling we’re being a little too leisurely, here,” the Slate guy said. “We’re looking at an alien invasion and the complete extinction of the human race, here. We don’t know how much time we’ve got left, it could be months, it could be minutes, but we need to use that time, not sit around talking about cheese platters.”

“I didn’t want to say anything, but I agree with Slate,” Gribov said.

“Ok, fine,” I said, “So we got the band back together. Now what?”

“It’s more like we merged two or three bands,” Mary said. “More like a supergroup, you know?” Slate glared at her. She just smiled. Was it just me, or had she aged a lot better than Mary and me? She only looked about seventy.

“Why are you towing a thousand-foot snake in a space suit?” Slate asked.

“Oh, that’s a funny story,” I said, “I have no idea.”

“What can you tell us about this invading alien?” Slate asked. By unanimous agreement, we had decided not to volunteer our relationship with the thing.

Sarah lied, “Nothing, really. No more than you. It appears to be an electrical-based life form, it appears to spread itself by radio waves.”

“Odd that it would call itself by a name that coincidentally happens to be our abbreviation for Artificial Intelligence,” Slate said. I wondered if they were still in contact with the French starship, which knew the truth. Probably not. They could probably only use the laser on one target at a time.

“Is it?” Sarah said. “I’m not from around here, so I’m not familiar with—”

“We could help evacuate. For whatever reason, it’s left our ship alone,” I said.

“More likely, it just hasn’t gotten around to you, yet. The solar system is big, and you’re a small target,” Malakov said.

“You’re counting on your ridiculous luck to hold out, Bob,” Gabby said.

“I find it odd that this thing showed up at the same time you did,” Slate said.

“Yes, that is coincidental,” Sarah said.

“Look,” Malakov said, “I don’t think any of us have any doubt that the N.E.R.V.A. is somehow responsible for this disaster. That doesn’t matter. What matters is how we get out of this.”

No doubt? Well Zhang Wei clearly was shocked by the revelation. He lunged at me and socked me in the jaw.

  • * *

I awoke to distant banging and moaning and roaring sounds, and feeling a bit logy. Where was I? RS2 had been waiting for me to come to. He informed me that I was in the hospital with a minor concussion, and that I was lucky to have been hit by someone who’d spent a year in low gravity. I was so old that a punch from a man with decent muscle tone and who didn’t have osteoporosis would have killed me. Evidently Wei had broken his hand, by the way.

“What’s that sound?”

“Quetzalcoatl woke up.”

“That poor thing. There’s no way it was responsible for all this. I’d let it go if it wasn’t as doomed as us.”

“Your friend, Ms. Tucker, argued that we keep it alive, it might come in useful. Malakov agreed, and it’s chained down like the Lilliputians did Gulliver, but if it doesn’t calm down he’s going to have to kill it. It’s big enough to damage the station.”

Changing the subject, I said, “Did Mary offer to help take people to New Russia? We could add some cargo pods, maybe take 30 or 40 people at a time, make a couple trips a day. We could empty this thing out.”

“There’s fifteen thousand people on this station, Bob.”

Oh.

The room lurched. There was a bang that I felt more than heard.

“What was that?”

“Nukes. We’re running. AI has launched missiles at us.”

  • * *

Mary and Sarah were off with Slate doing sciencey stuff. I had an orderly wheel me to the command center for the space station-cum-starship. It was lit by candles. Why they had candles on a starship I don’t know.

Seeing me, Malakov volunteered that the missiles would take three days to get to L5. They were probably simple cargo rockets with bombs loaded aboard. The O’Neil was big and slow, it would be difficult to get out of range. Since they were built to dock automatically, they could obviously home in on us with no difficulty.

“Where are you running to? Alpha Centauri, like the French? I thought you said your passive life support couldn’t handle it.”

“It can’t, but that’s not an issue. We’re heading to New Russia, appropriately enough,” he said. I must have looked surprised. “The O’Neil was designed to fly through the sun, just like you’ve done. It ended up being too fragile, however, and would have broken up if we tried it because we didn’t really know how that process works. Going through without precise navigation would be fatal. That aspect of the project was abandoned years ago, and we went from being a hiding-in-plain-sight starship to just a space habitat.”

“But since we’ve solved that for you…”

“Da. Yes. Fortunately, we have lots of buckycable on hand.”

I took that in. “You know, I might be able to help you with your guided missile problem.”

  • * *

Gribov and I were hanging from the rotating hull. The Nuclear Pulse Rocket was not pulsing at the moment, and the O’Neil coasted through space. The only thing to break the stillness was the tiny, intermittent shudder of a few thousand people cranking the mirrors shut by hand.

The station wasn’t moving very fast, and following my plans, the engineering team had quickly cobbled together a thousand-foot-wide crossbow out of scrap metal. Its construction was exceedingly simple, and a little rickety. I thought it might break at any moment.

I watched the cargo ships arrive at their destination through very powerful space suit binoculars.

“Sixteen by seven by thirty two point five,” I scribbled on a whiteboard. Beside me, Gribov fiddled with a slide-wheel.

“This would be so much easier if I had a calculator,” he scribbled and handed it back.

“They’re looking around to acquire the target,” I wrote, and handed it back. “Time?”

Eventually, after an eternity of looking at an ancient spring-powered pocket watch, he nodded at me and tapped one of the crewmen on the helmet. That guy pulled a lever, and our bolt flew away, moving backwards at a speed about the same as the station itself was moving forward. In other words, it was standing still while we drifted away from it. The entire station had lurched a bit from the recoil.

“Break this thing down, and store it, so we can turn the engines back on again,” he wrote on the white board, and handed it to one of the crewmen. We went back inside.

Three days later, I was back outside again, anxiously waiting to see what would happen. Space battles were slow! The missiles were following our course at about 3500 miles an hour, which sounds fast, but is just peanuts in space. After nearly a week of acceleration, we were moving at a hair slower than that. However our bolt was now about a quarter million miles behind us. They should just now be passing it if Sarah had wound that clock timer she built correctly.

KA-BOOM! She had! There was no sound, of course, but the light of the explosion hit us about a second and a half after the explosion itself. This was followed by the lights of three smaller explosions.

I’d taken one of the O’Neil’s Nuclear Propulsion Pellets—essentially a powerful atomic bomb about the size of a basketball, and put it in a large garbage can filled with graphite-coated ball bearings. There was no way the thing was going to hit one of the missiles, however that didn’t matter. When the bomb went off, the bearings became super-heated shrapnel that tore the things apart.

Back on earth, AI was evidently irritated, and launched more missiles at us.

We ended up having to use that trick three more times before we were out of range of earth-based weapons. We were also moving fast enough that the crossbow couldn’t counteract our speed anymore, so we took it apart for good. For the next several months, AI didn’t hassle us. We chanced turning the power on a few hours every week to run the cooling system. We were heading towards the sun, after all. It was like a sauna in here most of the time. Theoretically it was possible we were protected from AI by the continual nuclear explosions, but Malakov didn’t want to chance it for longer than he absolute had to.

Some thought that we’d made good our escape, but periodically we’d get laser messages flashed to us from earth. They generally read “I’m going to kill all of you,” or something unimaginative like that.

  • * *

The inside of the O’Neil was pitch black, apart from torches, candles, and glow sticks. I had one of the latter, and was looking at the alien.

I had taken to calling the Quetzalcoatl “Doublescar,” based on markings above one of its eyes. We had gotten it out of its suit, figured out what it breathed, and built a kind of face mask for it. Its eyes followed me almost like a baby’s would. It was pretty calm these days. As best we could figure, this thing ate electricity and nothing else. Since we had none to give, it was slowly starving to death, the poor dumb beast. I had wondered if we could use it to fight AI in some way. Perhaps we could just get him back to earth and he could eat AI?

“I don’t know how you can be so cavalier,” Slate said.

“I’m really not.”

“You’re joking around, being a jerk, not taking things seriously. I mean, why are you walking around with a sword and a flare gun in your belt?”

“Oddly, it helps me concentrate. But listen, kid…”

“I’m forty three,” he said.

“I’m ninety,” I said, “So listen, kid, I’m a maniac. I always have been. I was three fifths crazy when I stole the Nerva, and I’m four fifths crazy now. Honest to God, though, Slate, I want to die. I really do. I have no idea how I’m going to live with this. I don’t think I am, honestly. Assuming we survive, I don’t think… well… I’m not going to survive. But until then, crazy is how I work, ok? I need to keep functioning, and crazy is how I do it. If I wasn’t nuts right now, I wouldn’t be worth anything. I’m just hoping I’m crazy enough to pull one last rabbit out of my hat.”

“As opposed to the alien invasion you pulled out of it?”

“No, that one hopped out all by its lonesome.”

“You see? That’s just what I’m talking about. How can you—”

We heard yelling. Long-distance messages were now passed by cardboard megaphones and runners. There was a panic.

“We’re under attack,” Someone said.

  • * *

AI was now using interplanetary spacecraft. Painted black and running without lights, we hadn’t seen them coming until they were on top of us. The ones coming from behind weren’t really a problem. By this point we’d modified my atomic shrapnel bomb to use shaped charges. Essentially, the bottom half threw out flaming ball bearings, the upper half was a normal propulsive bomb. We started dropping those, and were safe from the rear, but that left the front and the sides and above and below.

The first ship impacted, blowing a hole through a mirror. A second cut a long, thin dent in one of the land portions of the hull, creating a new hill range on the inside. AI must be using small ships, and not bothering with warheads. Give his apparent numbers, and the relative velocities involved, he really didn’t need bombs anyway.

There was no way to fight back. Not against this kind of thing. Our only hope was to move faster, basically. Think, Bob, think! Another impact hulled the forward cylinder, and all around me, terrified people were running for secure locations, pressure shelters, tugging to pull on air masks, or struggling in to space suits. It was total chaos.

We couldn’t go faster, was the problem. We couldn’t just drop bombs out faster. We were at maximum acceleration rate now. If we tried, the O’Neil would tear itself apart.

Of course the Nerva could go faster, I could just pack up my families and run.

No, I couldn’t do that. Could I? If I didn’t, then the human species was dead. I had an obligation.

I also had honor, and no small amount of guilt. No, I wouldn’t run, even though the Nerva could go faster. Dang it, this huge ship was slow as a tugboat.

Maybe I could use it to out-maneuver some of the incoming ships, and push them off course? No, the moment I went outside, AI would possess my ship’s electronics, and probably crash me into the O’Neil.

You call yourself a space pirate? Think, Bob, Think!

  • * *

The Nerva was faster!

In the central cargo bay, Mary, Gabby, Slate, Rick, his mom, Sarah, Gribov, and even Zhang Wei (with his arm in a sling) were supervising strapping down my pirate ship as securely as possible. It was chained, grappled by hydraulic claws, and welded to the deck. I hoped it was good enough. We’d only had a couple hours, and we’d been under constant kamikaze attack.

As of now, we’d been hulled five times, and taken at least twenty minor hits as well. There were 273 confirmed dead, and twice that many missing. In another few minutes it wouldn’t make any difference if it worked or not.

I turned on the engines, and hoped there constant barrage of nuclear explosions that drove this thing would be enough to protect me from AI's deathwave. Then I moved the throttle up to 1%. I didn't fly forward and smash into the hangar wall. That was good. 2%. still secure. 3% There was a sudden lurch, and I panicked, but then I realized it was just another of AI's drones hitting us. 4%: still not dead. 5%: Everything was still holding together, but we took another hit. Time to be more ambitious: I pushed the throttle up to 10%, and felt another lurch, this one backwards. The station was definitely inching forwards a bit faster.

Up and up and up gradually over the course of an hour, until I had completely floored it. The impacts had stopped around ten minutes after I’d turned on the engine. Of course being about a zillion times more massive than the Nerva, my drive system couldn’t move the O’Neil as fast as it moved me. Still, we’d hit the sun in a couple weeks. That was fast enough. Faster than AI would be able to correct orbits and get more ships to us.

Slate came in the cockpit.

“Malakov sent a runner to let you know we’re safely away from the attackers. He also wanted me to tell you he can’t believe that stunt worked. Neither can I.”

“Reactionless drive,” I said.

“I just wish you’d thought of this a couple months ago.”

“Yeah, me too. I’m a genius, but only in a crisis situation,” I said. “Tell the General that if the nukes protected the Nerva, then they should protect the O’Neil, and he can turn the electricity back on. That should help with the repairs. Also, get someone to electrocute the giant snake, he must be starving.” Slate toddled off.

Mary was at the helm one last time, for the passage through the sun. An hour before we hit the corona, I used our communications laser to beam a message at earth. I knew AI would get it.

“I am the dread pirate Robert Nelson, and ye should have known better than to mess with the likes of me.” It said. Then I added, “Sayonara, sucker.” Obviously we didn’t stick around for the reply.

  • * *

My reactionless engines burned out from the strain a few minutes after we exited the star. It didn’t matter. The O’Neil’s engine could easily handle the rest of the trip. That was what it was built for.

New Russia hung in the sky before us, warm, and green, and blue, and white, and inviting and beautiful and full of life. Would it make me forget all the death I’d caused? Probably not. I don’t know how I’d deal with that, or if I’d even try. Now that the crisis was past, I could feel myself falling apart.

After we pulled in to orbit, Malakov wanted me to make a speech.

“You want the snake to welcome all the Adams and Eves to Eden?” I said. He insisted.

“Welcome to your new home away from home,” I said, and walked away from the podium. What else was there to say?

What else is there to say about anything? This is the story of how I simultaneously destroyed and saved humanity, and my story ends here.

Hopefully this isn’t where the story ends for everyone else, though. Hopefully they’ll have their own tales to tell. Hopefully they’ll find some happiness in their futures, somewhere down the line, in their own “once upon a time.”

 

The End.

[] Afterword

I am very proud of this book, but I’m even prouder of the author. Beyowulf Anthony Schanze is my son. A novel is a very ambitious thing for an adult to write, much less a high school student. The fact that he finished and published it before he turned seventeen is even more impressive. He had fun doing it, too.

On top of all that, it’s not just a good book, it’s a really good book.

Bey insisted that I get partial writing credit since it is technically co-authored, but I in fact I did very little. Just about everything in this project was his idea. The aliens, the humans, the fictional universe they play in, their personalities, most of the dialog, the technology, the story, all those were his. He’s a natural world builder and he worked those out in great detail.

He also came up with the unusual format for the book. He structured it like a television season, with twenty-two “Episodes” that are interlinked, but more-or-less standalone. That was both pragmatic and brilliant, I think.

As for me, I was definitely the junior writer on the project. In the few stories where I took the lead, I followed his detailed notes and directions as closely as possible. I helped out with the technical writing aspects, took dictation, and offered suggestions when asked, but I didn’t do anything without his say-so, and even with it, I didn’t do much.

Best of all, I feel like I learned a bit from it. Bey is a much more economical, terse writer than I am, and I think some of that may have rubbed off on me over the year we’ve been writing together.

Thank you for reading it. If you enjoyed this book, please tell your friends, and please take the time to post reviews on Amazon and/or Shakespir. With a little encouragement, Bey could continue to crank out good books for decades to come.

 

Sincerely,

Randall A. Schanze

New Port Richey, Florida

October 8th, 2015


After Conquest

  • ISBN: 9781311562043
  • Author: Randall Schanze
  • Published: 2015-10-11 08:20:14
  • Words: 53671
After Conquest After Conquest